American indie filmmaker Sean S. Baker’s new movie Tangerine tells the story of a transgender prostitute called Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) who having just been released after serving a month stint in prison for occupational misdemeanours, partners with fellow transgender colleague Alexandra (Mya Taylor) to track down her boyfriend-cum-pimp, Chester (James Ransone). It transpires that Chester has not only been unfaithful but has committed the cardinal sin of cheating on Sin-Dee with a biological female, thus invoking varied elements of thematic, dramatic and comedic gender issues that play out over the film’s 87 minute running time.
Tangerine’s trailer demonstrates that the movie is high on vérité energy and style, presenting a cinematically charged day-in-the-life dramatisation of Los Angeles’ sex industry, holding at its centre performances of two transgender actors who are both friends in reality and whose familiarity with the world depicted allowed them to collaborate on the plot. Tangerine is a film cultivating all sorts of praise and attention, meaning that this Sundance breakout hit may become one of summer’s niche surprises.
But perhaps Tangerine’s biggest surprise stems from the fact that the entire thing was shot on three iPhone 5s phones. That’s right, what looks like a professional and slick production was filmed on something many carry around in their back pocket, albeit the camera lens was enhanced with affordable anamorphic adapters that heightened its intimate look while also embellishing it with a widescreen cinematic aspect ratio. It’s a case of accessible technology allowing independent filmmakers to tell their stories without being encumbered by costly crews.
Tangerine has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures who will give the film a proper theatrical roll out in July, with bespoke advertising to boot. A generation ago Tangerine will have been an indie feature shot on cumbersome super 16mm film stock with much bigger cameras, but in today’s age was made by fewer personnel and looks way slicker. However, it seems baffling why there aren’t many more breakthrough indie films of this nature gaining comparable attention when access to digital filmmaking technology has never been better.
Had Tangerine come out in the early ‘90s when the new wave of American independent cinema was all the rage, it probably will have attracted similarly good reviews principally because of its quality. The issue is not with the difficulty of getting films made, but more to do with a lack of original stories and fresh vision framing such narratives. Director Sean S. Baker had the talent and ambition to ensure his movie got made, forcing one to assume that determined personalities such as his will have got their material produced regardless of what era they were realised in.
It can be argued, therefore, that getting films made is not strictly a matter of money, technology or access, but of talent. Woody Allen’s films aren’t especially expensive to produce and get made pretty quickly, which raises the question of why there aren’t more storytellers like him flourishing in this age of filmmaker-friendly conditions?
One supposes the matter may be to do with what kind of movies people want to make and how they want to get them out there. The blurring parameters twixt theatrical exhibition and home cinema viewing are changing in unforeseen ways. It is now reasonably inexpensive to replicate the big screen experience in one’s home, while high definition streaming accessibility means that bona fide moviemakers and film stars are shifting their attention to platforms hitherto viewed as inferior to cinema. As the multiplexes devote attention to cripplingly expensive Hollywood blockbusters and art house cinemas attempt to offset losses by scheduling more screenings of one-off Broadway shows, leftfield and low-budget cinema has had to eschew traditional avenues of presentation in favour of emerging formats. Things are shifting from collectivism and ownership to access and convenience.
The funny thing is that American cinema has changed in unfavourable and depressing ways, especially Hollywood studio productions. Studios have mostly shuttered their indie-skewing divisions as they are no longer economically viable, choosing instead to pick up such films via distribution deals on completion if they’re commercially attractive because of unexpected quality or standout star performances. Big producers such as Brian Grazer (Apollo 13) who had a long time deal with Universal Pictures and Joel Silver (The Matrix) who was expensively housed at Warner Bros. have been tossed out after decades of service, now forced to independently hustle for opportunities in a tough film financing market. They have become surplus to requirement as Hollywood focuses on building in-house franchises rather than hire expensive producers to develop new material that the studio doesn’t have total control over. American cinema isn’t what it was and most likely will never return to what it used to be.
This makes the arrival of Tangerine all the more exciting. Something that was created using the latest everyday technology will be released through traditional and established models of distribution. The truth is that if your project is genuinely worthy and your talents are recognisably brilliant, the films you make will always find their way to audiences.