Review: Tangerine

Putting aside Tangerine’s radical casting conventions and rampaging, jazz-like improvisational struts, the film’s masterstroke is its very introduction to the world. A scraggly pseudo-art scrawl adorns the screen with a classical, and seemingly classically trained credit sequence in warm, operatic font as sepia-toned pop vocals cart out the cast. Until the revelation: the art is not art, at least by its classical definition, but a scratched-up, weathered donut store table. It’s cheeky and provocative, but also a perfect primer for the film to come: an everyday soul that’s seen better days dressing itself up in its dreams of classical Hollywood.

Under one guise, it be considered a cheat, or a lie, like the table is hiding itself, dolling or doctoring itself up and putting on false airs, but Sean S. Baker’s Tangerine is a scalding, withering put-down of anyone who would deny a human their false airs. It knows that all personas are constructions, so why not allow society its more flamboyant ones? Following Sin-Dee Rella (transgender actress Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (transgender actress Mya Taylor) in and out of the LA labyrinth in another day in the life, Tangerine is a digital film (it was filmed entirely on an iphone 5) with a DIY analog spirit in more ways than one. The radical production technique is the most obvious such ode to past indie films, but the film’s ode to classical Hollywood is the most revealing. If Tangerine lets its freak flag fly, it is because it sings to LA and Hollywood as the land of the freaks, where performance is not the outsider, the outlaw, but the norm.

Yes, the two protagonists are transgender sex workers played by transgender actresses, but Tangerine’s most shocking gesture is its habit of radically addressing its own conservatism. On one hand, the intro is a bristling slap to Hollywood convention, a bald-faced, even angry gut punch that asks why a town – and a film industry – that revels in performance and fluid identity has for so long reified its notion of performance in ascetically limited ways. For an industry of pronounced fantastique and transformative potential, for an industry that so often nominally aspires to liberalism and inclusion, why does it ask that its stars, and its characters, assimilate to normative social standards even when, playing, say a non-human space monster. Someone can play Darth Vader, Tangerine asks, but not a transgender?

At the same time, Tangerine shares a certain kinship with the classical Hollywood tradition; it would be impossible for a cinephile to watch the film and not revel in its admiration for Some Like It Hot, where Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis cross-dressed and caused a Hollywood stir. Tangerine doesn’t deny the problems with such cinematic appropriation – it is aware that Curtis and Lemmon could go home at the end of the day with their masculinity intact – but one gets the sense that Sin-Dee and Alexandra would love to sit down for a drink with dragged-up Curtis and Lemmon and have a Hollywood ball after all.

Which is to say that the beguiling elixir of Tangerine has harsh words for Hollywood, but it is also plainly excited to be itself entangled in the Hollywood tradition. The film’s flaring primary colors bouncing around blaring primary personalities signal a recluse unearthing itself with a diva’s grandeur and devouring moments of everyday human spunk and spryly genuine warmth. The film is a tonal maelstrom, but that’s the highs and lows of the LA life, or the arrhythmic flow of a dynamically spurious slice of off-off Broadway showmanship for you. The film is marinated in wide shots to always catch a whisper or a whiff of LA at its most glamorous, and most gutter-ific, in its peripheral vision, leading to a film that is anthropological in its vibrancy as well as intimate in its detail. If it is an ode to LA “in reality”, it is plainly aware that LA in reality has absorbed more than its fair share of Hollywood excess and glamor throughout its life. Life is mimicking art, and Tangerine couldn’t be happier.

So Tangerine is an ode to LA the town (Baker has essentially stated as much, with a specific fondness for the donut store that opens and closes the film as another out-of-the-way place hiding in plain sight), but it is also an ode to its people. To Sin-Dee and Alexandra, played with a surfeit of spirit and confrontation by the two bedazzled stars, who flaunt their performance of gender roles and implicitly reveal the ways in which gender, for all of us, is a performance of sorts. Yet the film is also an ode to those performers that have come before. There’s an air of the early ’80s Tangerine Dreams of smoky LA noir nightlife here – the film tipping its hat to the past roles that LA has played. But this is one of edge-of-sanity pageant that jumps back further still, even to the silent era where cross-dressing performances where more common than they are today and where Hollywood and LA were just becoming the playground of supposed social freaks who didn’t find companionship in the rest of the world.

Back then, the freaks only came out at night, or so the saying goes, and if so, and if Tangerine is proud to be a freak, it’s a coming-out party in broad, furious daylight, a train wreck of a film that serves as an ode to train wrecks. It is technicolor sonic cinema, a blissful explosion of outsider ingenuity that reacts to its outlaw status not with alienation but robust insurgency, breaking into the lab that tests and stores the classic Hollywood comedy mold and injecting its own anarchic DNA into the plaster cast.

Certainly, there are moments of assured stillness, such as a spectral exhale of conclusion that signals the tiresome melancholy of the inner soul struggling to find itself amidst the breathless rush of personality the soul adopts during the day. Tangerine, then, isn’t sure that Sin-Dee or Alexandra have a home in LA – it knows that they don’t have it as easy as Lemmon or Curtis. But they’re trying in the way so many Hollywood others, and so many of Hollywood’s forgotten, have tried before, and the film is eager to sing their spunk to the world.

There’s a kinship to the vamping Joan Crawford here, or the slithering Gloria Swanson in 1950’s Sunset Blvd indomitably clawing her way back to the top to reclaim her once proud spirit and controlling the screen like a high-camp vulture whose ultra-performative essence boldly denied the reality principle. Like Swanson, Sin-Dee and Alexandra are playing life to their own drum, even when the world doesn’t want to hear their beat. At one point, a character asks “is this Sunset Blvd?”, referring to the street. As long as Sin-Dee and Alexandra continue to strut their stuff, to dress and act according to their own inner conception of their self and to perform the life they want to perform, they’ll always find Sunset Blvd, in more ways than one.

Score: 9/10

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