Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sean Baker | Tangerine

christmas in los angeles
by Douglas Messerli

Sean Baker and Chris Geroch (writers), Sean Baker (director) Tangerine / 2015

Two transgender friends, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodrguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are sharing a donut at Donut Time, unable to afford anything else, as the conversation turns to Sin-Dee’s boyfriend Chester. Having just been released from prison, Sin-Dee is about to announce that she and Chester are soon to be married, but her confidant Alexandra mistakes the turn in the conversation as being a declaration that their relationship is over, and expresses relief that Sin-Dee is dumping the man who, in her friend’s absence, has been having an affair with a white girl— who, even worse, is actually a woman! Moments later Sin-Dee, after recognizing what her friend has just expressed, Sin-Dee is transformed from a slightly exaggerated figure of the street into a towering Medea, out for revenge, while the movie—filmed amazingly on a Anamorphic widescreen attachment to an Iphone—goes into overdrive, speeding up the action as Sin-Dee, briefly abandoned by Alexandra for her drama-queen tactics, goes on the hunt.

Within the span of about an hour and a half, Sin-Dee swoops down upon the city with a nearly supernatural force that makes the grandest diva seem like a cheer-leading choir singer. Alexandra, slowly traipsing behind her friend in an attempt to bring some sobriety to the whole affair, is herself stalked by ghosts of the world in which she lives as while attempting to keep “it together” as she passes out post-card sized Xeroxed invitations to an event in which she plans to sing that night in a West Hollywood bar.
     If these two represent a community most Americans might never have before imagined, we gradually are so fascinated—and, secondarily, appalled by their actions and the world in which they exist that—particularly given the intense techni-coloraization of the LA landscape—we simply cannot resist watching. 
    Those of us who live in Los Angeles are used to the vast ranges in color of golden yellow landscape of “winter” afternoons as the light sinks into a sky of striped pink, purples, blues, and slate greens before the magical electrified landscape lights itself up for the night; but outsiders will surely not believe what they see. The landscape is naturally as exaggerated as the always “dramatic” characters and the world they inhabit. Day and night, we soon perceive, these female-male prostitutes (a hybrid species as sweet and sour as the mandarin orange found in Tangiers now called a Tangerine) they live lives of “drama” without a break, madly loving and hating the world around them while they seek out moments of self-expression and wonderment in the interstices of their boisterous actions. But in those moments, as this movie goes marching forward into nearly manic force, there is little time even to catch a breath.

    With hound-dog desperation Sin-Dee manages to track down her sexual competitor through bus, subway, and taxi rides that take her from the outskirts of West Hollywood all the way to center city transient motels, seeking out the girl Chester has purportedly been fucking, with only the suggestion is that her name begins with a “D.” No poet could possibly be as devoted to a single explication of a sound or letter than she, discovering her Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) in one of the worst flop house motels one might have imagined, with the ugly male clients grope their prostitutes in any possible space the rooms permit: bathrooms, showers, closets..
     Dinah, it turns out, is a fairly ignorant southern hillbilly who, in her squealing pain of injustice is hardly able to speak; but Sin-Dee refuses to be calmed as she brutally pulls, punches, slaps, and drags the poor girl through the streets back into her own territory just south of what tourists describe as Hollywood!
      Meanwhile, Alexandra makes her way through the same streets, picked up by a cheap and abusive white client determined that she help in “just getting off.” When he can’t even get an erection, she attempts to escape with her prepaid cash, while he, in turn, grabs back the money, while she attempts to steal his car keys, the scuffle ending up in an embarrassing encounter with the local police who force of the losers of them to stand off.
     Another, equally important plot line tracks an married Armenian taxi driver through his day, as he encounters a near dying American Indian named Mia and two drunken, retching party-goers who turn his taxi into a stinky vessel of disdain. But what becomes even more startling is that this father and breadwinner, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), has a thing about transgender prostitutes: his preference being to suck off their cocks!
     For most moviegoers, I am sure, what I have now told you might dissuade from seeing this film. But the fact is, if you can get over your amazement that such people, behaving so different from most of society, exist, you cannot help but perceive them as loveable, if troublingly disturbed beings who, as the movie progresses, are destined to farcically come together in ways that only somewhat like Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar might have imagined. 
     Gradually this Los Angeles “on the road” spectacle settles down into a comical-tragic conclusion as Sin-Dee, with her tortured girl in hand, determines to attend Alexandra’s singing premiere—an event to which nobody else has bothered to show up.

     Dinah, suddenly, reveals she has a secret weapon, drugs, which Sin-Dee, pipe in hand, cannot resist, and the two suddenly bond at the very moment that Alexandra is attempting to make her impossible claim for fame. Her terribly sad and touching performance of Victor Herbert’s “Toyland” will certainly put tears in your eyes, even if the previously violent events did not make you perceive the utter desperation of these figures. The fact that Alexandra has had to pay for her own failed premiere, makes it clearer yet that these women of the streets have nowhere to go, not only to sleep through the night, but in their own imaginations.
     Determined to drag Dinah back to her cheating Chester, Sin-Dee returns to the pimp’s nightly office, Donut Time, at the same moment that the Armenian taxi driver—having left his wife in mother-in-law, in the midst of a family celebration—arrives to declare his desire for Sin-Dee. 

     The arrival in this sudden hot spot of Raznik’s mother-in-law, and, soon after, his wife, child at breast, is obviously a bit too much to believe, and almost topples the film into a kind of absurdly implausible melt-down, as everybody, betrayed by everyone else in this topsy-turvy universe, is forced to realize and encounter realities outside of their comprehensions.
     If Chester finally convinces Sin-Dee of his love and commitment, the sudden revelation that he has also had a brief sexual encounter with Alexandra, shatters the theatrical semblance of reality. Razmik’s strange hunger for transgender cock similarly creates an incomprehensible barrier between husband, wife, and mother. This crazy, vital, nasty reality seems ready to collapse, and for a long few moments, it appears that all of the characters, Raznik, his wife, his mother-in-law, Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and, most painfully, the totally unwanted Dinah, must come to terms with the realities of their lives: that they are all figures who nobody can truly love.
     Troubled by Sin-Dee’s response to her betrayal, Alexandra alone trails after her, attempting, quite lamely and ineffectively, to apologize to no effect. When Sin-Dee meets up with a potential client, she pushes Alexandra off; at least she might bring in some money before the end of this long day. 
     As she approaches the car, bigoted youths toss hot coffee into her face in mockery, drenching her clothes and wig, the most important elements of her female identity. Alexandra comes rushing forward, dragging her resistant friend into a laundromat, demanding she give up nearly all the external elements of her identity and desired beauty so that they might be cleaned. The abandonment of her wig is the most devastating subtraction. As the two sit in pain waiting for the washers to complete their spin, Alexandra, in a gesture so graceful and magnanimous that we are stunned, offers the now hairless Sin-Dee her own long straight locks. But in that very act, for the first time, we truly perceive Alexandra’s saintly dome, blessing her with a beauty that her wig could only hide. 
     Did I forget to mention, this all happens on Christmas Eve? Nowhere else could such a lovingly outré tale be told as a Christmas story, yet Los Angeles is a world where all the simple myths of snow, crèche, and cathedral have absolutely no significance. But yes, I will now watch it every Christmas as a true significance of Christ’s birth. Despite….well it isn’t even despite any longer: these figures, so very separated from human kindness, have discovered how to love in way that resonates with a deeper humanity than many of those sitting in their cozy, ordinary homes.

Los Angeles, July 17, 2015

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