In the sun-blasted City of Angels, it could be just another day for the hustlers and trans girls who ply their trade in the squalor around Sunset Boulevard, but yet, but yet the Season adds its own glow.
TANGERINE DREAMS OF A DIFFERENT WAY OF LIFE
‘Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.’ A pink-iced doughnut sits on a table between two garishly dressed transwomen in a doughnut store in downtown Los Angeles. Sin-Dee (non-actor Kitama Kiki Rodriguez), newly released from prison having spent 28 days inside, has just inadvertently been told by her best friend, Alexandra that boyfriend – and pimp – Chester (James Ransone) had hooked up with a ‘white fish’ – a white straight woman – while she was incarcerated. Sin-Dee is fuming and on the warpath. As she storms off to find the offending woman, Alexandra (the more sane-acting Miya Taylor) is forced to follow in her wake, only able to sigh: ‘Merry fucking Christmas’ as she hurries out the store.
Sean Baker’s low budget Tangerine takes place entirely on December 24th, 2014 and is the first feature to be shot on an iPad 5, and uses non-professional actors. It takes a little while to settle down and the pair to find their thespian feet, though maybe that is the point. Sin-Dee is overtly shrill, her actions crudely expressive and her whole world seems to be filled with full scale DRAMA that is quite draining to watch. But Tangerine is salvaged by the fluid cinematography and framing and the film’s scorched dayglo bubblegum aura: there’s a touch of the early John Waters’ about this movie.
A shaft of Christmas magic in a grim, tough world
While Sin-Dee’s journey accompanied by Alexandra plays as the very heart of Tangerine, her story is intersected by that of Armenian cab driver, Raznik Karren Karagulian), the vagaries of the different fares he takes, and his relationship with the local trans hookers. He drives a woman along Sunset Boulevard, and it is clear that this remains a place of faded dreams and low expectations, food lines and pawn shops. This is the deadbeat end of town where people wash up and are lucky to escape. There’s a grim, tough world of hustling, poverty and drugs.
Yet Christmas Eve casts its own magic nevertheless. Again and again throughout Tangerine, people either plead for leniency or are willing to offer it, simply because it is December 24th. A drunken pair of men who have disgustingly and copiously thrown up in the back of Raznik’s car are unceremoniously dragged out by the driver and on to a grass verge. One of them, between bouts of continued illness bleats: ‘It’s Christmas Eve. Where’s your Christmas spirit?’ at the understandably irate cabbie.
When a bemused police officer breaks up a street fight between Alexandra and a punter over money, she tells the pair: ‘It’s Christmas Eve. We’re going to go our separate ways because that’s a lot easier than telling our family why we have to be bailed out of jail.’ (To which Alexandra retorts: ‘Family.’ Clearly she doesn’t have one, and the officer’s suggestion is all about the male punter.)
Trans identity has notably become more mainstream in Western media in recent years and Tangerine presents a non-judgemental view of the harsh beleaguered lives of these members of the trans community. It is rarely a pretty sight. When Sin-Dee attacks Chester’s much more slight girlfriend, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagen) and drags her along the street and then forces her up against a metal grill and throttles her, one cannot but help be made very aware of the sheer difference in physique. (Earlier, a fight between Sin-Dee and a man is heralded by her screeching ‘I still have a dick’ at him as if to confirm it will be a physically equal match.) Sin-Dee may claim to be all woman but it looks like an unequal and naked male strength and aggression we are observing.
A Day Of Grace And Reckoning
While people appeal to Christmas Eve for some graciousness, Tangerine’s tale in fact proves to be a day of reckoning for everyone this particular December 24th. On the surface, the Christmas dinner at Raznik’s family home appears the most conservative and settled. There is his little daughter and the family dog, his wife, her mother-in-law and friends, and a large twinkling Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. But the cab driver’s sexuality definitely will out this Christmas Eve and shake up the whole nest.
Interestingly, as an excuse to leave the household to go and watch Alexandra sing, and also catch up with Sin-Dee whom he fancies, Raznik announces ‘Christmas is for Americans. For us, it’s another work day.’ There’s something very Dickensian undergirding that statement about how not everyone can afford not to work during the festival. But there is another relevant point: once he’s left, his wife explains to her mother: ‘His real Christmas is on the 6th January.’ This is one of the few cinematic acknowledgments within the melting pot of the United States that Christmas is not on the same day for all. (That the film is set on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day suggests a more Eastern European and/or Catholic perspective of the season.)
It is back at Donut Time where everything comes full circle and to a head and all parties meet. Truth will out. Perhaps Reznik’s mother-in-law, for all her bigotry and overbearing personality, ironically is the most perceptive when it comes to this supposed season of good cheer. She complains to Karo, the cabbie driving her to find Reznik that ‘This is Christmas without snow.’ There is no whiteness to cover up and romanticise the city’s grim underbelly. ‘Los Angeles is a beautifully wrapped lie,’ she adds, as if on the one hand contradicting herself while her words carry their own truth too.
Lonely Souls Adrift In City Of Angels
By the film’s end when the night is setting in, it is clear that there are many lonely souls trying to make sense of Christmas. (A moment of tenderness between the two trans friends only serves to emphasise the bruised personalities and vulnerability beneath the hard sass.) And Reznik sitting in the dark beside the flickering Christmas tree in his warm family home is as adrift as those transgirls selling themselves on the street. Baker set the film on Christmas Eve for this very reason – because so many of the girls have no family, and can not rely on their fellow hustlers: ‘because there’s so many fake people out there. It’s just a whole fucked-up situation. In the end you only have yourself.’
Yet for all such harsh reality, Tangerine amounts to a funny, sad, grim, tortured, tender tale of people hanging on to the underbelly of the American Dream with their garishly fake-nailed fingertips during a fairy light-lit day of reckoning.