We’ve all been there before: it’s Christmas Eve and you’ve just been released from jail to discover your pimp has been cheating on you so you flip out and hunt him down. It’s a pretty universal conundrum. That was what Pilgrim’s Progress was about, right? Or doesn’t Plato have some allegorical yarn about emerging from a darkened prison, reaching upward toward the light, finally beginning to perceive the true form of reality, and then bitch-slapping your pimp? The Parable of the Donut Shop, I think. Basic universal plots like Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, The Quest, and Christmas Eve Pimp Hunting have a certain inherent comfort to them because we’ve all been there before.
Tangerine is fresh, though, even if you somehow don’t have a real-life parallel to the above scenario. I’d love to tell you that the freshest thing about it is the story, and admittedly broad aspects of it are rare in modern multiplexes. The primary cast members are transgender and transsexual individuals, led by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (as Sin-Dee Rella, the newly-freed pimp-hunter) and Mya Taylor (as Alexandra, the Sundance Kid to Sin-Dee’s Butch Cassidy); the film is rounded out by Karren Karagulian’s Razmik, a cabbie with a penchant for rolling the streets where working girls Sin-Dee and Alexandra “ply their trade”. These aren’t your typical heroes, and that sentiment has little to do with their sexuality or gender. These people are the kinds of people that mothers-in-law everywhere are disgusted by, because the activities they engage in seem supremely self-serving, petty, deviant, etc. Indeed, Razmik’s mother-in-law makes all of this explicit when she shows up and harshly disapproves of what she sees.
More on the story/characters in a moment, but again there’s something else new about Tangerine: it was filmed on an iPhone. When the film premiered at Sundance it was lauded for a variety of reasons, but this part seemed most noteworthy at Tangerine‘s debut. As competing filmmakers doled out their life savings for IMAX cameras and super-omniflux-anamorphic lens covers with Strinne green stripe patterns, Tangerine writer-director Sean Baker ended up having a maximum budget of $120,000, which in major-motion-picture-making terminology is tantamount to $0. Baker really wanted to make Tangerine, though, and he ended up turning a budgetary necessity into an artistic decision:
I didn’t see any other way the film could be done…The film that turned me onto [shooting on an iPhone] was Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer. Remember the kid shooting on his iPad? There’s something about every time it cuts to his iPad footage I got more interested. I thought, “Why isn’t anyone doing a whole film like this yet?”
With an iPhone 5s, an anamorphic lens adapter for smartphones, an $8 app called FiLMiC Pro and a Steadicam-like rig called a Smoothee, Baker and Co. captured Tangerine in such a way that no one guessed it was filmed on a phone until Baker himself let the cat out of the bag at Sundance. This tidbit, above all, might be the most laudable: Baker wanted Tangerine to stand alone as a story unattached to the apparatus used to capture that story. That, paired with the fact that Baker refused to let money define Tangerine‘s existence, suddenly make him a filmmaker watch.
Meanwhile: is Tangerine actually good? It certainly ain’t perfect. As inventive as some of the individual shots are (regardless of the camera used), some of the editing is jarring enough to take away from the beauty; as powerful as the performances are from Taylor and Karagulian, the drive that should come from Rodriguez’s Sin-Dee never matches that power. But overall the bold feel of Tangerine outweighs all of its faults. The location choices are particularly memorable, from the sunlit streets to the bluntly monikered restaurants Donut Time and El Gran Burrito Restaurant Midnite where Chester (the hunted pimp) does his thing.
So yes, Tangerine is good outside of the fact that it was filmed on an iPhone. Oddly enough, Sean Baker is one of the guys who created Greg the Bunny — remember Greg the Bunny? — and now he’s championed in the independent film industry for a creative revolution of sorts. There’s an argument to be made for his point of view in not caring how Tangerine was filmed, as the film might be more enjoyable if you’re not concerned with the staging/lighting of what you’re looking at. There were certainly times when the story of Sin-Dee and Alexandra took a backseat to thoughts of “How did they do that?” and “What would that look like on a DSLR?” and “Man, this movie has more lens flare than Star Trek Into Darkness.”
Speaking of lens flare, I recently had the pleasure of attending the Montclair Film Festival’s filmmaker talk with J.J. Abrams and Stephen Colbert, the latter of whom interviewed the former about his rise to big-budget filmmaking. Abrams in fact called attention to Tangerine, and as with the majority of conversations about Tangerine (present company included) did so in the context of how it was filmed rather than in the context of, say, what it was about. But he used it to answer a question of what an aspiring filmmaker should be doing, and his answer was essentially make films. “Today, there’s no excuse,” he said. “All of you have a camera in your pocket right now.” So Sean Baker’s film is good of its own accord, but that sentiment is endlessly more inspirational: right now, Tangerine is in your pocket.