Shooting an independently financed film is challenging enough. Now imagine stripping away the entire crew and narrowing it down to just your phone’s camera.
This is the challenge that “Tangerine” decided to take on and not only does it succeed, but it also breaks some new ground in doing so.
“Tangerine” was shot exclusively using three iPhone 5S phones (this was likely the latest phone model when the film was in production). You will notice it at first (it is hard not to), then you get used to it, then you will barely be able to tell the difference.
Taking place entirely on one night, Christmas Eve to be exact, “Tangerine” is all the more interesting because it tells a very specific story. It is set in Los Angeles primarily at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue. This is an area notorious for drugs and prostitution.
This is far away from the glamour of show business and a reminder that yes, this is a diverse, multi-dimensional city. If you have never been to Los Angeles, you will get a completely new perspective of America’s second largest city. If you know it well, then you will enjoy the hyper-specific references (for instance, when they say they’re “walking to Vermont,” they mean the street, not the state).
The film centres around Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), two transgender prostitutes who get into a lot of misadventures, some hilarious, and some deeply sad. Sin-Dee finds out her pimp boyfriend (James Ransone) cheated on her while she was in prison. So she takes Alexandra on a mission on Christmas Eve to find and confront him.
This high stakes mission is treated in a very laid back way, and it allows director Sean Baker to navigate through the strangest places and people in the City of Angels.
One person who pops in and out is Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian). This might be the first time I’ve ever heard Armenian be spoken in an American film. Something that makes “Tangerine” unique is that almost every film set in LA will show you the Hollywood Sign and Venice Beach, but few of them ever acknowledge the fact that LA and its suburbs has one of the largest Armenian populations in the world (a portion of Hollywood is referred to as Little Armenia).
“Tangerine” doesn’t make a huge show of the fact that it is shot on an iPhone (the production notes packet, given out at press screenings, dedicates one small paragraph to it). However, I feel like it is as important to the story as Sin-Dee and Alexandra are. It makes the viewer feel like they are there.
In a way, it feels like the phone captures more than an expensive, nicer looking camera might have captured.
Baker says that part of the reason he shot the movie this way was that it allowed him to get more natural performances out of his inexperienced leads, as this would be less intimidating than a real camera. It also helped with extras, as most of them were just people the crew found on the street. To give the film that grainy, cinematic look, they attached an anamorphic lens and shot through that. It is kind of like “Bowfinger,” in which Steve Martin played a director shooting the lowest budget sci-fi film imaginable.
This bare bones approach is what makes the film seem so raw and at times more like a documentary than fiction. This fits well, given that “Tangerine” is primarily about people living double lives in a city fuelled by lies, even outside of show business.
At times, you feel like you are getting access to places that you are forbidden from. Or simply, just the bus and the subway. And yes, there is an entire subway system in LA.
Watching “Tangerine” made me think immediately of “Clerks” and “Slacker.”
This must be how people felt when they saw those independent classics in the early 1990s which proved you could make an engaging film that exists more on loosely connected scenes and conversations than the traditional three act structure. When people saw that Kevin Smith made “Clerks” so good with so little money, they thought that anybody with a few bucks can make a movie. Now that most people have some form of smartphone, everybody really can make a movie.
Well, anybody can make a movie. However, not everybody should make a movie. But Sean Baker can.
“Tangerine” isn’t just a vehicle for the capabilities of the iPhone.
After walking out of the movie, I found myself focusing less on the iPhone and more on the story and characters. I thought about Alexandra’s uproarious fight with a customer in front of some indifferent cops. I thought about that tense moment when you realise that Razmik’s secret would be revealed, and his entire world would unravel in an instant. I thought about how this is one of the bleakest Christmas movies I have ever seen, and it takes place in an area covered in palm trees.
“Tangerine” is a Christmas movie for people who don’t feel the Christmas spirit.
I loved its dark, cynical spirit and how, in that, it ends up being a story about friendship. And you don’t need an IMAX camera to capture that.
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