“Just because it is an important movie, does not mean it is a good movie.”
As a rule I try not to read reviews for movies before I see them both because I‘m a purist and because I don’t want to influence my own review one way or another. This is a rule I broke for Tangerine. But in all honesty they weren’t reviews so much as they were reactions as they spoke about the film’s portrayal of, and subsequent impact on, the trans community. Tangerine is a story about a prostitute who gets out of jail only to find out that her boyfriend has been cheating on her, and the subsequent tirade that she goes on to get revenge.
Tangerine is an important film, and there is no denying that fact. It’s important on many levels interestingly enough, the first being to filmmaking in general. Tangerine was shot exclusively on iPhones. It broke that mystical barrier that stands between creators when successful directors urge you to get out of your house and create regardless of the gear you have available to you. We finally see that a movie made on an iPhone, something that exists in almost everyone’s pocket, is not a pipe dream concocted by a studio executive who is completely out of touch with reality.
The importance of this is almost too much to convey in words, but it is also very obvious. During the opening shot of Tangerine wherein our two main characters are having a conversation at Donut Time, a setting that becomes familiar to us throughout the film, the only thing I could think of is how this movie was shot on an iPhone. It’s hard to shake that look, you know? It felt very amateur, and especially the audio during this opening conversation was very grating. Tangerine didn’t stand as a testament to how ‘anybody can make movies with whatever tools they have’, it existed as a warning to why people shouldn’t.
Luckily this faded away as the movie continued on as my eyes got acclimated to the rather jarring visuals. There were some genuinely good shots in Tangerine, and ironically enough they were captured in low-light conditions. Unlike the visuals the audio improved immensely, which goes to show that audio is easily the most important aspect of film as it helped in my immersion in the story. But despite the ‘gimmick’ fading away, remnants of its existence stuck around.
Tangerine has what I would call very involved camera work. There is rarely a shot where the camera is stationary which makes perfect sense when you think for a minute about what it would be like to film on an iPhone. You have this magical brick, no bigger than a wallet, and with that you are completely free. It’s lighter, smaller, and a hell of a lot more maneuverable than a traditional film camera so it makes sense that director Sean Baker would make use of these aspects.
The music of Tangerine does its best to capture the high-octane tone that the direction conveys as well, with aggressive techno backing most of the film. This also aided in the visual style of Tangerine fading away as I was immersed in the world via the score. But another, arguably more important remnant of the iPhone shooting stuck around and made me feel kind of weird.
Go on YouTube right now and you will see hundreds of thousands of videos shot by normal people with normal phones uploaded right to the internet. This gets even more intimate if you hop onto your favourite social media app and see the unfiltered versions of some of these same videos posted by friends and family. Sure these people uploaded these videos for your viewing pleasure, but watching them is usually anything but pleasurable. It feels almost gross, like you’re invading someone else privacy with this intimate look at their life; and that’s exactly the kind of feeling that Tangerine kept with its decision to film on consumer smartphones.
People often point to movies like Rear Window when speaking to the idea of voyeurism in movies but for me Tangerine was the first movie to truly break that barrier; make me feel as though I was watching something I shouldn’t be. This feeling persisted even after the initial gimmick of the iPhone footage wore off and I was immersed in the world; it remained as an invasive thought in the back of my brain. This feeling grew to almost uncomfortable levels when the more intimate moments in the film made me feel as though I was watching amateur porn in a room full of strangers. Maybe that was the intention: provide a raw look at the lives of not only sex workers but also trans women in Los Angeles. This brings me to Tangerine’s second importance.
Like I said, before I watched Tangerine I read two reviews of the movie; one condemning its portrayal of trans women and one praising the same thing. I want to be clear, I am the furthest thing from an authority on literally any subject but especially this one. If you were offended by Tangerine I totally get it and you are entitled to your opinion. I don’t share that opinion, but that’s because I can’t. The issues tackled in Tangerine are not issues that I have been faced with ever in my life. That being said, I do disagree with some of the criticism I did read about Tangerine.
The main argument made against Tangerine was that the film used comedy at the expense of these trans women, essentially exploiting them for the entertainment of cis white men. Now this was of course outlined in the negative review of Tangerine, but what I found interesting was that the comedy was also touched on in the positive review as well. But in the second review instead of blaming the filmmakers the audience was seen to be at fault.
On the grounds of comedy things get a little tricky for me. I’m of the mind that anything can be funny; nothing is off limits in comedy. That doesn’t mean that I will get mad if someone gets offended by a joke, because much like with the reaction to Tangerine I can only speak for myself. That being said I never felt as though any of the jokes in Tangerine were at the expense of trans women.
Most of the jokes in the film are delivered by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez who played one of the films’ leads, Sin-Dee. Sin-Dee was a character who, to me was least, was portrayed like every over-the-top woman you’ve ever known; almost like a less-refined Kardashian. I felt like this was a commentary on Sin-Dee’s character itself rather than trans women as a whole. To support this argument we only have to look to the other side of the frame to see Alexandra, played by Mya Taylor. Her performance in Tangerine was a lot more subdued, almost as though she was relegated to constantly picking up the pieces of the things Sin-Dee destroys in a fit (which she was, to be fair). This relationship to me felt like a traditional buddy comedy rather than any commentary on trans women in general.
In fact, I would argue that Tangerine did more good than harm because it helped to normalize (for lack of a better term) the idea of trans women. It’s no secret that the world is a fucked up place, but comedy remains one of the great equalizers. Tangerine offered a story about trans women that wasn’t really about trans women, instead showing them in an otherwise ‘normal’ story. 90% of Tangerine wouldn’t change if cis women were cast in the roles that Rodriguez and Taylor completely owned. This is because the movie, for the most part at least, isn’t so much about the trans experience as it is the seedy underbelly of LA. This is a step in the right direction for Hollywood as the more exposure the general public has to people they deem “different”, the more familiar they become.
I feel as though I am bordering fairly close to rambling here so I’ll wrap up this portion, but there is one more thing I want to discuss in terms of Tangerine. Just because it is an important movie, does not mean it is a good movie.
Tangerine is plagued with inconsistent storytelling, and a general feeling of “why am I watching this?” Despite a lot of the movie being pretty funny and enjoyable, the ending seemed to drag and exist as almost a deus ex machina in the way it abolished all problems in the film. This, coupled with the fact that Tangerine features a “walking alone while sad” montage that is well beyond the line into ‘excessive’ it’s obvious that there was a question of how to extend the runtime into something past ‘short film’. And this shows throughout the film as well with the constant peek into the lives of other characters who act only as obstacles for the audience to get to the enjoyable parts of the film.
Overall Tangerine is a movie that is important. I can’t argue that. But its importance does not make it infallible. There are serious issues with the film’s writing which stunt almost all enjoyment towards the end of its runtime. Sure it was funny, but the ending was seriously unfulfilling.
I give Tangerine a C