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Tangerine: A Yuletide Flick for the Digital Age

written by Glyn Davies December 22, 2016

Christmas films are pretty mixed bag, all things considered, encompassing all styles, genres and eras and appealing to a wide range of tastes and temperaments. It could even be argued that there isn’t really any such thing as an out-and-out Christmas film, as many of what people name as their favourite Christmas films are often only tangentially related to the festive period, which is to say that Christmas is just when they happen to be set. Believe it or not, there are actually people out there whose favourite “Christmas” films are 1980s blood-and-bullets bonanzas like Die Hard or Lethal Weapon. As for myself, when it comes to 1980s Christmas-related flicks, I tend to go for either the much more sedate Trading Places or the entertainingly subversive Gremlins, both of which I can happily watch at any time of year, but which I nearly always end up watching at some point over the Christmas period.

Some people might opt for the more traditional, family-friendly likes of The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Snowman, or perhaps George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street or Frank Capra’s shameless nuclear assault on the heart-strings, It’s a Wonderful Life. There are, of course, dozens of others, and everyone has their favourite. A very recent addition to my own Christmas watchlist is Tangerine, which like a lot of the films mentioned above, has only a tenuous relationship to Christmas, in that the whole story takes place during one very chaotic Christmas Eve in Los Angeles. But it does tick a lot of boxes for both cynics and romantics alike: it’s smart and gritty, and yet also tender and touching, and is in many ways a lot more traditional than it initially pretends to be.

If the film achieves anything, it demonstrates just exactly what the creatively-inclined can do with the inexpensive-yet-powerful modern technology that most of us now have at our disposal.

If you’ve heard of Sean Baker’s ultra low-budget indie hit Tangerine at all, you’ll probably already know about its unique selling point: that the entire film was shot on three iPhone 5s smartphones, with the aid of some modified lenses, a few widely-available apps and a bit of professional sound-mixing software in post-production. If the film achieves anything, it demonstrates just exactly what the creatively-inclined can do with the inexpensive-yet-powerful modern technology that most of us now have at our disposal. Don’t like the increasingly bland and generic sludge emanating from Hollywood? Bored with endlessly manufactured cheap sensationalism on TV? Then create your own content. The means of production are quite literally in your pocket, along with free-to-access distribution platforms like YouTube and Vimeo which allow you to completely circumvent the traditional content gatekeepers at film studios and television companies. There’s nothing to stop you. The success of Tangerine absolutely proves that.

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Of course, Tangerine was made by a professional film-maker who had the full intention of screening the film in cinemas, but the basic point remains. This really is one of those “you could do this too” moments that popular culture occasionally throws at us. As a technical experiment, Tangerine succeeds admirably. It looks sharp, vibrant and nothing less than professional, despite what some might see as the gimmick of being entirely shot on smartphones; but you honestly wouldn’t know, unless you’re actively looking for glitches and imperfections. Sean Baker himself insisted that using iPhones was more about budget constraints than trying to make a creative point – although it can’t be denied that being known as “the movie shot with iPhones” created a lot of buzz around Tangerine prior to its release – and once Baker was satisfied that the smartphones could successfully create the cinematic effect he required, he saw no reason not to use them. As a result, the entire film was made for less than $100,000, a ridiculously small amount of money in an industry where “low budget” is generally considered to be around the sub-$10m mark. But the most remarkable thing of all is that, despite the very unconventional manner of its creation, Tangerine also happens to be a very good film in its own right.

Set in a very downmarket neighbourhood of Los Angeles, Tangerine is a film that comes to life entirely through its characters and dialogue, and centres around an eventful day in the lives of its three protagonists: Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), both transgender sex workers and best friends, the former of whom is fresh out of jail following a 28-day sentence for soliciting; and Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an amiable Armenian taxi driver, ostensibly a hard-working family man trying to support his wife and young daughter, but who finds himself irresistibly drawn to some of L.A.’s more colourful subcultures.

All of the film’s characters are in some way outsiders, people on the margins of society, through either their status as immigrants, or simply through lifestyle choices that veer towards the outré. Tangerine presents centre stage a range of characters that have all too often been portrayed in innumerable films as mere clichés, nothing more than a little background colour in a street scene, particularly if the film is set on the streets of Los Angeles: sex workers, trans women, pimps, drug users, immigrants, we’ve seen these exact archetypes in thousands of movies, hanging around on street corners, lurking in the shadows or sometimes laid out on a mortuary slab as a detective delivers a self-righteous homily on modern morals; we know what such people are meant to signify, implicitly or otherwise. Even taxi drivers often serve in films as little more than go-to fail-safe everymen, acting as a medium between street-life and “normal” life, between “them” and “us”.

This is where Tangerine really scores as a great character comedy, as through the course of the film, as we get to know the characters and learn, through their dialogue, more about their day-to-day lives, their backgrounds and their aspirations, we begin to warm to them, overcoming our less-than-sympathetic initial perception of them. As the film begins, the characters appear to conform to the broad strokes of their stereotypes, and don’t come across as particularly likeable. But within a very short space of time, we can’t help but see them as real people. Flawed, damaged people, and both exploited and exploitative at the same time, but fellow human beings all the same.

The great Hollywood deception is one of Tangerine’s overarching themes. Hollywood is a byword for glitz and glamour in popular culture, a place where reality is whatever you want it to be. And yet through the orange-tinted, non-refracted lenses of Tangerine, it is clearly a very squalid and desolate place populated with damaged and desperate people, a place where reality and dreams bear absolutely no relationship to one another.

The main focus of the film is the close but tempestuous friendship between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. Right from the start we are thrown straight into their chaotic lives, knowing very little about the pair other than their gender identity and their profession, as we proceed to follow them, along with Razmik, through their respective story strands. Following her release from prison (presumably that same morning) Sin-Dee meets up with Alexandra and the two share a doughnut and a bit of gossip, which inadvertently leads to the information that Sin-Dee’s fiancé/pimp, Chester (James Ransone), has been unfaithful during her incarceration, evidently to nobody’s surprise but her own. Being the loud, confrontational type – as opposed to the more easy-going and rational Alexandra – Sin-Dee immediately goes on the warpath, tearing through West Hollywood like a tornado and forcibly extracting Chester’s apparent new girl, the hapless and downtrodden, but similarly gobby Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), from a brothel and dragging her back across town for what she intends to be a big showdown with Chester. Alexandra meanwhile, opts to leave Sin-Dee to her personal drama and get on with her own day, which is mostly spent handing out flyers to various acquaintances, publicising her singing spot in a local nightclub that evening, along with turning the occasional opportunistic trick.

In between the various misadventures of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, we’re introduced to Razmik as he goes through the motions of his regular working day, driving his cab around the streets of West Hollywood and conversing with his weird and colourful variety of passengers, from cranky old men and bereaved pet owners, to selfie-obsessed teens and vomiting Christmas revellers. Razmik, it is later revealed, also has a secret predilection for trans women – and so is a friend (and occasional customer) of both Sin-Dee and Alexandra – and his furtive behaviour as his very traditional extended family descends on his apartment for Christmas Eve arouses the suspicion of his fearsome mother-in-law, Ashken (Alla Tumanian), who surreptitiously tails him as he hastily leaves the house for an apparent “evening shift”.

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It’s a very loosely-plotted film – the plot, such as it is, is purely functional, but does at least serve to keep things moving along at a fair pace – and is really just a succession of comic set-pieces and misunderstandings as we follow each character’s day, all of which climax in a truly chaotic scene in a doughnut shop later in the evening, where all paths finally cross, secrets are revealed and reputations are ruined. It’s the kind of scene that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Almodóvar film, as melodrama, slapstick, farce and pathos all collide with each other in a frenetic and painfully funny back-and-forth.

Which is all well and good. But it is really a Christmas film? Well, that’s almost a philosophical question, the answer to which probably depends not only on what your idea of a Christmas film is, but also your idea of Christmas itself. The story might take place over one Christmas Eve, but with over 300 days of sunshine throughout the year, Los Angeles is probably one of the least Christmassy places you could set such a film in. Even Ashken, for whom tradition is everything, calls L.A. out on its bullshit, complaining to one of Razmik’s colleagues (also an Armenian), whose help she has secured in tailing her errant son-in-law, that a Christmas without snow feels somehow fake, before uttering one of the film’s best and most significant lines: “Los Angeles is a beautifully-wrapped lie.”

The great Hollywood deception is one of Tangerine’s overarching themes. Hollywood is a byword for glitz and glamour in popular culture, a place where reality is whatever you want it to be. And yet through the orange-tinted, non-refracted lenses of Tangerine, it is clearly a very squalid and desolate place populated with damaged and desperate people, a place where reality and dreams bear absolutely no relationship to one another. Sin-Dee’s dreams of real love and some kind of idyllic, married life are tempered by the fact that Chester, a complete sleaze-ball who doesn’t even try to pretend he’s anything else, will promise Sin-Dee anything just to shut her up, without even the merest hint of sincerity, while Alexandra’s dreams of being a singer are cruelly dashed by the paltry turnout for her nightclub spot, which consists of just Sin-Dee, who is only there out of obligation to her friend, and the practically abducted Dinah, who would rather be almost anywhere else; despite this, she gives it her all anyway. Even Razmik, by the film’s end back in his apartment with his now scandalised family around him, looks like the loneliest man on Earth, his new American dream dissolving before his very eyes.

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Christmas films come in many different forms because we all see Christmas itself in very different ways. While popular culture continues to sell us sentimental images of snow and Santa, whether we’re religious, or traditional, or neither, Christmas can be a very personal thing; my own idea of Christmas might not coincide with yours. However, I do think that Tangerine absolutely conforms to what I’ve always seen as the three ‘F’s of more traditional Christmas movies: friendship, family and forgiveness. As such, it has a deceptively warm heart beneath its cold, cynical shell, such as when Sin-Dee realises, at her absolute lowest ebb – drenched with urine from some passing frat boys – that Alexandra will always have her back, or when Razmik’s wife makes it clear that she is more than willing to overlook his indiscretions as long as he continues to provide for his family. In their own way, these are classic Christmas movie tropes. It doesn’t mean for one moment that the characters are going to change their ways, as might happen in more sentimental Christmas movies. As far as Tangerine is concerned, this could have been any day in the lives of any of the characters, and will probably turn out to be exactly that: just another day. But the film’s message is still very clear: even if we don’t have everything we want, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have nothing. What could be more Christmassy than that?

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