The main selling point of Sean Baker’s Tangerine, a day-in-the-life melodrama centring on a small Los Angeles neighbourhood in which a pair of trans sex workers hunt down a cheating boyfriend, is that it was entirely shot on iPhone. While it’s not the first feature to boast this claim – cursory Googling suggests that Uneasy Lies the Mind beat it to the punch – it’s still worth interrogating if there’s any merit to this apparent gimmick.
The decision to film with iPhones was driven by budgetary factors – they’re cheaper than fancy cameras and make it easy to bypass filming permits – while allowing for a “more consultative, less exclusive filmmaking process.” But it’s also grounded in a realist conceit – Baker filmed the story with largely non-professional actors, collaborating with and including everyday people from the area (for example, a bus driver called the police on two actors filming a fight scene on her bus). While Tangerine isn’t a ‘traditional’ realist film, necessarily – it involves heightened emotion and interrogates the notion of performance in ways that aren’t typically associated with ‘realism’ – it provokes questions about what connotes a ‘realist’ aesthetic in 2015 (…and is an entertainingly energetic film besides).
Over the past few decades, home video has been a significant influence on the style adopted by realist filmmakers. Super 8 film was commonly used – or mimicked with jumpy, over-exposed photography – to suggest domestic intimacy before being supplanted by SD video’s grainy immediacy. But nowadays the associations have shifted; Super 8 feels retro, nostalgic while SD video – and, in particular, VHS – today carries this grimy aura of grindhouse, more suited to a snuff-movie vibe than realism. Modern ‘home movies’ don’t look like film; they look like low-res YouTube clips or glitchy Skype sessions or – more often than not – iPhone footage.
Consequently, Tangerine feels real, even if its screenplay (if that’s the word given the improvisational approach) prefers oversized dramatics. It resembles the footage we see of real events in our day-to-day life, so it’s easier to accept as reality rather than fiction. Don’t think that the legacy of an earlier generation’s realist aesthetic is entirely obsolete, however! Baker’s post-production included colour intensification – shifting towards a “hyperreal” style – and the addition of grain. The reality here bridges the past and present, but grain or no, there’s a proximity to the image that draws you into the narrative. Without the distance created by carefully-lensed professional cameras, you feel like you’re right in LA on Christmas Eve.
That proximity is necessary to a film that depicts the kind of behaviour typically framed through tsk-tsk moralising without any sense of judgement. When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) takes Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) hostage while searching for her boyfriend (The Wire’s James Ransome), or when she subsequently shares Dinah’s crack pipe, we’re right alongside her rather than in a position of superiority. Tangerine sympathises with Sin-Dee and her best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor), and so do we.
What drew me to Tangerine wasn’t its characters, though. Not that Sin-Dee and Alexandra aren’t fascinating characters, balancing inherent vulnerability with overt, performative femininity (the kind of exaggerated bitchiness that defines modern American reality shows). But the real achievement of Tangerine was how it managed to take the most-photographed city in the world and present it in a way that I’d never seen it before. By keeping his focus on a small neighbourhood – and limiting transport to buses, cabs and mostly walking – Baker is able to construct a world that feels intimate and authentic. There’s far more to Tangerine than how it was filmed.