There are in a big city many cities happening all at once. These simultaneous cities are overlaid, in places intersect. And yet they exist almost separate unto themselves, share as they might some sidewalk or stretch of asphalt with another version of the city more readily known. Such is the Los Angeles captured and imagined by filmmaker Sean Baker in Tangerine.
The world, the city of Tangerine exists mainly in West Hollywood, not so far from those thoroughfares whose sidewalks are inlaid with stars, above the river of the 101 freeway. But in experience, practically a planet removed from the destination of most tourists who swarm to Hollywood with a far more sterile, prepackaged experience in mind.
The Los Angeles of Tangerine is one of strip malls, cheap motels, diners and doughnut shops where all manner of business is transacted. It's an L.A. where people actually walk and ride the bus (sorry, Ms. Didion). Rather bleak if you look at it in a conventional way, but incontrovertibly pulsating with life and color (the film apparently takes its title from the preponderance of orange that makes its way into the frame) as seen in Mr. Baker's film.
Tangerine also shows us a city within the greater city frequented by transgender sex workers. We meet two such individuals at the outset of Tangerine who turn out to be our co-heroines: Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor).
Sin-Dee Rella is fresh out of jail as the two share one of the offerings at the doughnut shop that inspired Baker's film. "Are we supposed to share it? asks, Alexandra, laughing. "Yes, we're supposed to share it, bitch, I'm broke!" So frequently go the verbal exchanges between the two, words sharp as their determined gait, perfectly extended hair or flawless ensemble draped on lean physiques; the word "bitch" like a hand that can caress as readily as it can give you its back and slap.
The genial catch up takes a turn for the ominous when Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee's pimp and main man, Chester (James Ransome), has been cheating on her with "some white fish" (a cisgender woman). "Chester's fuckin' cheating on me with a real fish?," says Sin-Dee, frequently pounding the table with a makeup brush as if she's brandishing a dagger. "Yeah bitch like a real fish girl like vagina and everything." Alexandra confirms the bad news and then must follow her best friend on a long day's revenge odyssey into the Los Angeles night, leaving her side only to dispense flyers for her singing gig that night and later wait for Sin-Dee to show up at the bar, offending real fish in tow.
While Sine-Dee and Alexandra prowl this nether Hollywood, we also are taken inside the cab of an Armenian immigrant, Razmik (Karren Karagulian). Like Mickey O'Hagan who plays Dinah, the slight, woeful woman who is the subject of Sin-Dee's wrath, Karagulian is a Sean Baker veteran, part of the fairly seamless mix of professional and non-professional actors in Tangerine. Initially the story simply cuts from the propulsive hunt of Sin-Dee to the travails of Razmik, transporting a series of eccentrics (including pink-haired style blogger and Hello Kitty enthusiast Francis Lola, making a non-speaking cameo) on the day before Christmas. The most humorous of these passengers is played by Clu Gulager, explaining his feminine name while he slouches in the back seat. To those who recognize Gulager, his presence is almost surreal in Tangerine, reminder not only of that other Hollywood where the big films get made, but a Hollywood that doesn't quite exist any more, Tangerine demarcating cities in space as well as time.
The series of Christmas Eve fares, seemingly a kind of filler to remind us just how colorful is this world into which we are peeking, quickly gets to a point of diminishing returns, reaching its nadir with two men who vomit all over Razmik's back seat. "Animals," he practically hisses, after dragging them to the curb and driving off in his befouled cab. What looks to be a West Hollywood Slacker by way of Taxicab Confessions actually has a more organic connection to the life of the film than Baker initially reveals. The scenes with Razmik, his family and other Armenian immigrants show us yet another Los Angeles subculture. We also find out that the taxi driver not only knows the transgender sex workers as part of his rounds through the streets and alleys of their common neighborhood, he's sometimes their customer. The lives are indeed connected and we see an example of infidelity in Razmik's life as we do in those of Sin-Dee and Alexandra.
As Tangerine begins in Donut Time with Alexandra and Sin-Dee, it's not clear whether Baker and his cast are really going to draw us into their world. Sin-Dee taps the metal window frame with yet another makeup implement and offers the sort "Hi" that's a playful two-syllable come on. Alexandra hoots in response, and its as though their director had just said "Okay...go," without any preparation, any thought to script and character. But once the pair quit the doughnut shop and begin their various quests, the story gains its momentum and texture. More significantly, all the characters we see - major and minor - seem fully formed and much more of the Los Angeles street than movie studio.
Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch apparently met Mya Taylor at a Los Angeles LBGT center. At subsequent meetings, Taylor would share stories from the neighborhood. Baker's initial idea to make a film about the bursting-with-life doughnut shop at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue began to find the dimension and depth it needed. The writer and director was wise enough not to impose his vision about a community of which he had only superficial knowledge. The conversations at a Jack in the Box restaurant also eventually included Kiki Kitana Rodriguez. Baker had his stars.
So, we have these by turns formidable and vulnerable women. Baker and Bergoch's dialog was kept real by input from Taylor and Rodriguez , an example being the phrase, "What's your tea? - meaning What's your problem? or What's your deal? - apparently common currency in the neighborhood. It was apparently Ms. Rodgriquez's idea that the story take the form of woman scorned narrative. Overall, instead of sassy stereotypes, we have full, flawed people. It's hard to imagine watching Tangerine and not loving these characters, but both are shown at their best and near-worst.
Sin-Dee's scorches a good bit of barren L.A. earth on her way to finding Dinah, dismissing if not bowling over everyone in her path. When the unfortunate Dinah is at last yanked from the depths of a particularly seedy motel, Sin-Dee drags and occasionally smacks her down streets, against buildings, in and out of a bus, unconcerned that the ill-used women has only one shoe for most of the journey. And yet this is the same Sin-Dee who later, almost tenderly, applies makeup to Dinah's face in the bathroom of the bar in which Mya performs.
For much of Tangerine, Alexandra is certainly the calmer of the pair, almost a long-suffering older sister to Sin-Dee. However, Alexandra does a little dragging of her own when a client doesn't come forth with the $40 owed her. As the two begin to struggle, she says, "You forget, I've got a dick too!" Ultimately, the hapless man is hectored within sight of the amused members of the L.A.P.D. Like many interactions in Tangerine, this adjudication runs not to pat drama (nor hobnailed authority), but to wry dismissal.
For all their moments of documentary-like authenticity, Sean Baker's films neither wallow in any found darkness, nor resort to pessimism which seems readily at hand. Tangerine's sometimes serious, sometimes decidedly comic tone was apparently a conscious desire on the part of Baker, one with which Mya Taylor in particular agreed. That humor at times draws us in while demonstrating a kind of survival mechanism for those living these challenging lives. We hardly see this facet of the sex trade at its most dark or dangerous. Instead, the few transactions we witness are more expressions of comic misunderstanding or exasperation (Alexandra's sort-of hand job for which she doesn't get paid; Razmik's unwelcome discovery of a vagina beneath a female prostitute's skirt), or, a rare stylistic flourish on the part of Sean Baker. Not that harsher realities are entirely banished. When Sin-Dee is doused with a cup of urine flung from a passing car at key point late in the the film, that is apparently an echo of a kind of assault that has actually befallen more than one sex worker in the neighborhood.
The stories of Alexandra, Sin-Dee and Razmik are allowed to flow where they might - realistically, fancifully; comically or quite dejectedly - while Tangerine impressively captures its smaller details and lesser characters. The first motel scene alone is like a mini-documentary. When Sin-Dee bursts into the "party room," it's like we have shone a light on some little seen nocturnal world, all the more so for the warren of sub-rooms and their very unglamorous inhabitants. The woman, Madam Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, whom Baker discovered on the Vine video platform), who serves as a kind of gatekeeper to this party is one of many secondary characters that are brought fully to life with just a few lines of dialog and a well-directed performance. Madam Jillian is less howling Cerberus than a woman canny enough to know just how much toughness is required to survive in her world.
Apparently it was Karren Karagulian (Razmik), a long-time collaborator of Sean Baker, who recommended that Tangerine also use its subplot of the cab driver as a window into the Armenian immigrant community in Los Angeles. The narratives ultimately come crashing together in a climactic scene both cutting and humorous at Donut Time, where Razmik's mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) pursues him to prove his infidelity, while Sin-Dee is doing the same, having reunited Chester and Dinah. A conversation between the mother-in-law and another Armenian cabbie (Arsen Grigoryan) on the way to the Donut Time showdown demonstrates what a rich, detailed piece of work is Tangerine. The mother-in-law speaks critically of having Christmas in such a place as Los Angeles. The city is, she ultimately says, is "a beautifully wrapped lie." We see an ambiguous smile on the cab driver's face. "Agree to disagree," he says. He adds that he's still learning English. More subtlety to be found in that little shimmer from this small film than many a indie feature in its precious entirety.
So yes, Tangerine was actually shot on an iPhone 5s. This apparently invention born of economic necessity. But as Sean Baker has said in interview, having a hand-held device that will accomplish a lot of the work of shooting hardly precludes the need to utilize a hundred years of filmmaking know-how. One still must understand lighting, the vagaries of sound. And the phone themselves were not quite enough. Baker was able to acquire prototypes of anamorophic adaptors which made a wide screen perspective possible. A Steadicam device was also necessary at times. But the darting mobility of the phones did allow the director to do things like circle or pass his actors on a ten-speed bike. There's an excellent example of this early on when Sin-Dee departs Donut Time to begin her hard target search for Dina. Sine-Dee's crisp, take no prisoners stride (and cruel intent) find perfect sonic accompaniment in "Team Gotti Anthem," by DJ Heemie & DJ Lightup, complete with martial clicks and simulated shots fired in rhythm, the momentum of this accentuated as the camera speeds at Sin-Dee then past. Too look at Tangerine, you certainly wouldn't guess that it was filmed on an iPhone. Among other post-production touches, Baker added grain to the appearance of the film, while also more deeply saturating the color which was already present.
Clearly, Sean Baker knows how to direct a film, much as he rarely feels the need to remind us of this fact. The camera sweeps here and there, but almost never for simple effect. Tangerine lets itself get a bit drunk with style only once and it's woozy ride worth taking. This a carwash scene in which Alexandra has to get Razmik off before the cab reemerges into Los Angeles daylight. Perhaps it's been done before, but it probably hasn't been done more effectively, the sense-obscuring wash of soap and water, the sensuous, overwhelming caress of brushes and wraparounds a near-perfect analog to sexual abandon.
Tangerine is Sean Baker's fifth feature, and his second impressive foray into a parts of Los Angeles rarely seen on film. His previous film, Starlet (2012), recounts an unlikely friendship between a young porn actress and a solitary older woman, avoiding, as with Tangerine, the very obvious potential for something more exploitative. Baker's two New York films (like the excellent early features of Ramin Bahrani, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop), Take-Out (2004) and Prince of Broadway (2008) are stories of the immigrant experience that have a similar documentary feel melded with a minimalist if slightly optimistic storytelling touch. Baker apparently made Tangerine (with seed money help from the Duplass brothers) because he couldn't make something bigger, the sort of film for which one's crew might actually get paid in a timely manner....
Given the results so far, one almost wishes such continued financial constraints on Sean Baker, selfish though the thought may be. His body of work to this point is like a great dive bar where all are welcome, a place teeming with all manner of humanity. Given the relative success of Tangerine, he might get to make that bigger film next time out.
In the meantime, Tangerine is more of the admirable same from Sean Baker. We see people on screen that we don't normally get to witness in American film. That transfer to film or video occurs without loss of humanity or dignity (and in this latest case, with a good bit of humor). Baker clearly respects his subjects and his characters. There is perhaps no better example of this in Tangerine than when Alexandra's performance takes place, a privilege for which she, not the bar owner, pays. Instead of some expected bit of camp lip syncing, we get Mya Taylor in closeup with a sweet, moving rendition of "Toyland."
Tangerine is ultimately just a human and humane story. The late rift and subsequent reconciliation between Sin-Dee and Mya is actually one of the film's more nakedly engineered twists. And yet there's no lack of depth in the ultimate shot when the two sit in a darkened laundromat at film's end. This owing to the execution of Sean Baker, but mainly to the personality and vulnerability that Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor invest in these memorable characters. Doused with urine, Sin-Dee has to surrender the entire ensemble for washing, including - most troublingly - her impeccable hair. Before the two join hands, Mya takes off her wig and gives it to Sin-Dee. It's like a transfer of armor, a sharing of identity.