Tangerine Sean Baker (USA 2015) Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, James Ransone, Karren Karagulian
Viewed: Star and Shadow Cinema, 21 April 22 Ticket: £7
It’s Christmas Eve and time to eat and rejoice and to suck cock
Sean Baker’s movie Tangerine is about desire. Specifically the streets of LA or any large city as portals of desire giving onto open spaces where desires are embodied and satisfied in forms outside the censorious morals of ‘normal’ society.
Tangerine, so called presumably because of the fake tan colouring of the ladymen hustlers, comes up from the streets, with a sassy ‘know it’ voice. A movie with a voice that says I want. It wraps the audience up in the gladiatorial defiance of the transsexual street whores locating the action on the LA Boulevards that are the points of intersection between the transgender hustlers and their clients from the straight world. The structure of the film comprises a series of cameos from the two worlds that finally lead to the collision of the two cultures in the local doughnut store.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine fronts up the street persona of its two leads hustlers. Sin-dee and Alexandra are the axies around which the film whirls as they strut across their Sunset Boulevard turf, a zone characterised by the fractured architecture of retail and commerce. Baker’s movie is driven by iPhone cameras that track and trace the enraged war dance of betrayed Sin-dee, playing out her theatrics of vengeance. The iPhone the chosen tool of the street workers: drugs gangs prostitutes and cabbies, brings immediacy to the volatility of mood and light that are part of the film. The iPhone as a tool of the selfie, everyone is playing out to themselves. That’s the scene.
Mechanised sex, women paid and used as ‘come’ machines has always been a recourse for men either as pimps and exploiters or as clients for distraction entertainment or frustration. Hence the inherent vulnerability of women in the trade: they got to be both ends facing. The issues of the ladymen seem to me to be different. Sin-dee and Alex realise their desire to be ladymen makes them social pariahs. Being street whores, dangerous as it may be, has possibilities. It enables them not only to flaunt what they are but also gives them a certain type of discreet power. Their work is a vindication of a life.
Sin-dee and Alex are comic book gothic characters. Like Superman Spiderman and the rest, Sin-dee and Alex are superheroes (‘superheroes have feelings too’ as Batman once said), with their own costumes and their own special powers. Powers of attraction and repulsion. As the iPhone follows Sin-dee with her power walk, her huge fake mop of flowing locks (like a WWF fighter), her scaly hose and tight hot pants, we get the message: this girl can fight.
At the core of the expressive game of adopting the persona of the female but retaining the physiognomy of the male, is a claim on personal power. Immediate power. Power based on being different from appearances, being ambiguous, being knowing, being potentially dangerous. It’s a personal power generally confined to particular situations: entertainment, brothels, certain types of streets and perhaps the home. Spaces where the persona is protected from institutional hostility and assault. However vulnerable and inadequate the cross dressing whore may be there is something in the choice that involves integrity, and integrity is a source of inner belief.
In Tangerine, the power of the ladymen is on the streets. At the other end of the spectrum lies the conforming power of the home. Conversely the power of the home is often weakened out on the streets where it is overwhelmed by a culturally engendered overflowing sexuality that can no longer be contained by conventional strictures.
Baker’s script cleverly takes the two worlds of objective and subjective desire and sets them into momentary interpenetration. Baker selects for his ‘home’ subject an Armenian immigrant (Razmik), married and part of a large (and probably unwanted) extended family. Razmik is a cabby.
Christmas Eve: Here are the streets; here is the home…I want cock…
Baker chose not to depict an American. American’s these days in big cities never drive the cabs. Only immigrants drive cabs: long hours and usually treated like the nobody they are. So Razmic is a cabbie, an Armenian, part of a close knit newly arrived immigrant family. So it is a real traditional family and the script is set on Christmas Eve when all the values of the family, its love its consideration, are set to full display mode. But Razmik, after plying the cab trade all day, likes to take time out sucking cock of ladymen. The desire for ladycock overwhelms him when confronted on Christmas Eve by his family who want him be part of their embrace: the wife the mother in law the kid the cousins and aunts. But he is possessed by the image of Alex. Her image her power reaches out to him, overwhelms him . He makes his excuses (gotta work!) and abandons the family at their Christmas Eve party, to seek out Alex and suck her dick.
And so it comes to pass that in the doughnut store where the film begins the stories reach their climax. The two worlds collide in a finale of ‘scandal’. It’s very funny, but the script doesn’t simply exploit the humour of the situation. It stays responsive to the human factors in play, and this is the defining feature of Baker’s scenario. Both in the doughnut store and in the final street and launderette scene, the characters affirm both their dignity and humanity. Both worlds, the street ladymen and the family world understand something: they have to look after each other’s vulnerability.