Sean Baker’s TANGERINE was one of 2015’s major accomplishments. It blended together a balanced mix of social relevance, ingenious technical elements, excellent visuals, and a story that touched on cerebral themes without neglecting entertainment value. Most importantly, however, the film portrayed the experiences of trans women in a way that was honest and intimate. This insight is owed to the collaboration between director Sean Baker and star Mya Taylor, whose stories from the neighborhood where the film was shot impacted the film’s writing. YouTube comment sections and opinion pieces are full of trans viewers mentioning the film’s accuracy in the trans experience.
But for all of that, it’s also interesting to view TANGERINE as a film impacted heavily by its setting. Front and center is the city of Los Angeles, described in the film as “a beautifully wrapped lie”—hazy orange hues and dry heat practically radiate off the screen as frantic, saturated images guide us through the story. But there’s another element to the city of angels—the fantasy.
It’s no secret why Los Angeles is called a dream factory. The entertainment industry makes its living on manufacturing fantasy, Hollywood trying desperately to immerse and captivate audiences. The great dream that is the Hollywood machine corrupts or impacts, depending on your view, everything around it, or so it seems.
Fantasy comes up time and time again in TANGERINE. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) is frequently seen passing out flyers to a bar gig she’s putting on later. As we come to find out later in the film, she’s actually paying for the privilege. Her dreams of singing stardom are an investment on her part, a willing fantasy that she needs in order to believe in forward motion, in instant stardom, in a life outside of her own. Her performance, like all performances, is attempting to transgress her reality, from the sex worker to the singer.
It is the same with the relationship between Chester (James Ransone) and Alexandra’s friend Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). Despite Chester’s cheating, there is a resolution. Sin-Dee knows Chester mistreats her; she has no illusions regarding his infidelity or his callousness towards her. All that being said, she continues to invest in the fantasy that their relationship is a perfectly functioning symbiosis, perhaps because Chester gives her bouts of love and affection necessary for her well being.
Razmik (Karren Karagulian), the cab driver with a fetish for trans women, is another cog in the fantasy machine. When his transgressions are revealed to his wife, we see a surprisingly temperate reaction from her. Despite his infidelity, she nevertheless asserts to her mother that he takes care of his family, a valuable and commendable trait for her. While relatively little is revealed about their family dynamics, it’s a possibility that she’s known all along, owing to the lack of surprise she shows when her mother confronts her with the evidence. In any case, her fantasy surrounding their relationship revolves around his continued economic support.
In its multifaceted depictions of the fantasies surrounding Los Angeles dwellers, TANGERINE surprisingly finds itself in a place shared with many films set in the city. David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, perhaps the best depiction of the dream factory on screen, is an odd companion, but the two films share more than meets the eye. Where Lynch sees his LA through the lens of 50’s Americana and classic film, Baker’s visual style conjures up images undoubtedly influenced by exploitation pictures in their graininess and saturation. The two films are similarly about the relationship between two women, a dynamic ripe for analysis through the filmmaker’s lens. But to go even further back is to look at a clear influence on Lynch’s film: Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD.
Both TANGERINE and SUNSET BOULEVARD share an important trait: a dose of dark humor. Living in Los Angeles and being invested in dreams of stardom that seem to never take off is clearly unpleasant, but humor is necessary to cut through that. As Mya Taylor says in an interview, “[even] for the people that do sex work because they can’t get a job, you know, do all this crazy stuff, all you can do is laugh to try to keep yourself floating. Otherwise, you’ll commit suicide.” Drawn into isolation, all Norma Desmond has to keep her afloat is the fantasy of a hit picture and a dry wit. It’s the same with Alexandra and Sin-Dee, and when dreams are shattered in the final acts, it’s the bond between the two that keeps away the darkness of harsh reality, a luxury that Norma doesn’t have.
There is no doubt that TANGERINE is a unique and refreshing picture, but if there’s one thing that can be inferred from its’ position in the canon of Los Angeles pictures (including films like CHINATOWN, BOOGIE NIGHTS, ED WOOD, etc.,) it’s that not much has changed since 1950. Los Angeles is still a place for dreamers to get caught up in grand fantasies, a place so fantastical that stories about it basically write themselves. In the end, TANGERINE exists as a film with a diverse and eclectic range of themes, but one thing is made certain—you can’t make a film about people in Los Angeles without engaging the city’s almost primal power to conjure fantasy.