[This post is adapted from a currently unpublished paper entitled "The Comedy of Tangerine," which I submitted as coursework during my MFA program at Boston University.]
Tangerine is a demanding and emotionally devastating film. It constantly pushes its characters against one another, unrelentingly building tension on (and sometimes over) the edge of conflict. Despite this edge—or perhaps because of it?—the film is surprisingly funny. One way to put this is to say that Tangerine is a comedy. Or a more precise way to put it may be to say that Tangerine certainly wants its audience to laugh. The purpose of this rephrasing is to clarify that not all laughter is created equal, and that not every laughter-inducing moment is necessarily meant to be “funny” in the general sense. Horror makes us laugh. Pity makes us laugh. Even shocked bewilderment makes us laugh—as Sherriff Ed Tom Bell says, with a shrug: “[there] ain’t a whole lot else you can do.” Laughter in any of these contexts is a release of tension: sometimes, that tension is released by the cognitive tickle of a punchline, witticism, or solved riddle; other times, that tension is released by schadenfreude—that is, by the safety of knowing that the pain we’re watching is not ours to bear. Often, problematically, these two categories are blended. This may happen when a punchline comes at someone’s expense—because “punchlines need trauma.” The question, then, is whether Tangerine’s punchlines are exploitative of its characters’ trauma and of their disenfranchisement in society. When critics say this movie is “so vivid and real that you feel like you’re walking the streets of Los Angeles with its main characters,” do they mean to say that we are walking with Sin-Dee and Alexandra, in an immersive, empathetic, side-by-side kind of way? Or do they mean to say that we are walking alongside Sin-Dee and Alexandra, watching them as curious, voyeuristic observers, delighting in the spectacle of their lives, their identities, and their hardships? Put simply, and narrowly: when laugh, are we laughing with them, or at them?
My answer is that we are laughing with them—which is to say that the comedy of Tangerine is not exploitative or mean-spirited. Rather, its comedy is rooted in constructive, humanistic yearning (however frustrated). It is a comedy interested in the release of empathetic tension. Surely, there are times at which the film wants us to feel somewhat distanced from and discomfited by Sin-Dee, Alexandra, Chester, Dinah, and Razmik—these five are no saints—but that distance and discomfort is never about the film taking cheap shots or “punching down.” One way in which Tangerine’s humor works is by digging into notions of perfect idealization vs. performative constructedness; of truth vs. falsity; of objectivity vs. subjectivity. A second way in which the film’s humor works is by looking at fluidity and (im)mobility. And a third way is by exploring marginal spaces and dynamics. With all three of these methodologies, the film is able to build both its nearly unbearable tension and its nearly undeniable comedy.
II. On perfect idealization versus performative constructedness.
Ashken—Razmik's mother-in-law—describes Los Angeles as “a beautifully-wrapped lie.” She says this with a scoff, in the context of her complaints that it really ought to be snowing on the night before Christmas. Her driver, Karo, isn't so sure. “Agree to disagree,” he says. “Christmas is Christmas, regardless of the weather.” Similarly, Jack Halberstam argues that "identity, after all, is a convenient fiction that we use to make connections.” Of course, Halberstam's working definition of identity as a “convenient fiction” is not quite as cynical or dismissive as Ashken’s assessment of Los Angeles. He is not saying that identity is a lie. However, the ideas are similar in the sense that they are both gesturing towards notions of constructedness, of aesthetics, of imagery and iconography, and of the ways in which various meanings can be (re)defined variously. Tangerine is curious about the space between Ashken’s perspective, Karo's perspective, and Halberstam's perspective. In what sense is identity an elaborately constructed illusion (“a beautifully-wrapped lie”)? In what sense is it inherent (“Christmas is Christmas”)? And in what sense is it sociologically conjunctive (“that we use to make connections”)? Could it be all three, or none of the above?
According to Marcos Bequer, the notion that identity is inherent, or pure, or rooted in some kind of homogenous Platonic ideal, is dangerous and deserves to be subverted. He speaks of voguers looking at themselves in the mirror, and “recognizing [themselves] as a construction.” He says that by so doing, people “can be seen to make use of the very simulacrum by which the Lacanian subject is duped.” In other words, they radically escape the idea of the “more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego” in their reflections, and are instead able to see the image for what it is: an image. More specifically: their image, which is to say, a subjective image—imbued with their own individuality and untethered from some hegemonically defined ideal. This recognition (and embrace) of heterogeneity and constructedness can “reveal the guises of domination and may thus redefine our positions vis-à-vis representation.”
Sean Baker introduces this redefinition, positionality, and representedness immediately in Tangerine. Within the film’s first 90 seconds, Sin-Dee exclaims to Alexandra, “you finally got tits, bitch!” Alexandra’s response is a proud declaration of successful transition and feminine verisimilitude: “bitch, the estrogen has been kicking in.” Though, paradoxically, there is still a hint of the Lacanian mirror here, as Alexandra concludes: “I look like the real thing!”
During this donut shop conversation, both characters are animated and jovial: it’s not a joke, but they’re laughing. This moment sets a tone of light-heartedness that permeates the rest of the film, even during its heavier turns. There is a sense in which we are to understand that these people love to laugh, as an expression of connection and solidarity but also as an expression of what Charlie Chaplin might call an “attitude of defiance.” For Chaplin, this defiance—this willingness to “laugh in the face” of tragedy—is something important, through which we are empowered, and without which we will inevitably “go insane.” And the “tragedy,” in the face of which Alexandra is laughing here, is that she must undergo expensive and laborious medical treatment just to feel “like the real thing” while living in an oppressive and rigid society that actively makes such transitions difficult. All of which is to say that at the heart of Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s connective, defiant laughter here is not an endorsement of the Lacanian mirror. Instead, we are meant to laugh at the mirror, in celebration of its defeat: “you can’t dupe us,” we are to say, rebelliously. “We know what ‘ideals’ you have set forth regarding traditional masculinity and femininity. We are choosing to construct something else instead. Something new.”
This notion of gleefully heterogeneous defiance returns many times throughout the film. Notably, Alexandra growls, “you forget I got a dick, too,” while scuffling with a parsimonious john over $40. The line feels almost like a one-liner in a 1980s action film—confrontational, graphic, and pithy. It’s both a performance of testosteronic masculinity (thus reaping, at least for a moment, the benefits of the privilege and power that comes with that masculinity) and a rejection of estrogenic femininity (thus forfeiting, at least for a moment, the benefits of the compassion and grace that comes with that femininity). An even more striking example of this kind of masculine/feminine performance, of course, is Sin-Dee dragging Dinah through town, by her wrist or her hair, with an aggressiveness that’s both comically slapstick and horrifyingly abusive. But first, she has to find and abduct Dinah. When she does so, there’s a rhythmically repetitive, asymmetrically interrogative back-and-forth moment at Madam Jillian’s door (culminating in the perfect line reading: “there ain’t no Dana here,” Jillian shouts, defiantly; there is a beat, then, “Dinah?”). It’s silly, bonkers, and it escalates quickly—almost reminiscent of “Who’s on First?”— right before Sin-Dee kicks the door open and all hell breaks loose. This exchange is exemplary of Sean Baker’s knack for economy, circular dialogue, and comedic timing—but more importantly, it is illustrative of the way in which Tangerine traffics in the subversion of expectations, the violation of norms, the willful imprecision of labels/names, and the (violently literal!) breaking of barriers. All of these things are what make the film so powerful and resonant—but they’re also, on a more immediate level, what make the film comedic.
III. On fluidity and (im)mobility.
Another aspect of Tangerine that makes it work on both an emotional and comic level is its treatment of the question of mobility. This film is infectiously, deliriously propulsive—always shifting, panning, tilting, tracking, moving, cutting—to the point where the rhythm almost reminds me of a certain British zombie comedy or even a certain German crime thriller at times. This dynamic style is not merely aesthetic, however: it’s an indication of Tangerine’s radical relationship to time, space, and movement.
Arguably, all cinema has a similarly radical dynamism (noting possible exceptions, e.g. when filmmakers deliberately elide camera movement, or angle changes, or even chromatic variety). As Schoonover and Galt put it: “the dynamism of the cinematic image pushes against the reification of meaning.” This is because “it keeps the signifier in motion, never fixing terms of relationality.” Tangerine seems to exemplify this even more than most films; not only is its camera constantly on the move, but its characters are almost always in motion, too—sometimes with a more deliberate pace, but often with an extraordinary crackling energy. Characters tend to walk briskly, whether they’re boldly approaching dangerous confrontations or aimlessly pacing in circles on the sidewalk (as Razmik does, indignantly—while one of his drunken customers vomits and protests).
Despite all of this, we cannot justifiably say just because Tangerine is a fast film with physically active characters, that it must necessarily be interested in mobility with regard to the fluidity of gender identity and sexual orientation. Its interest in those things is made manifest in a much more direct way: its depiction of mechanical mobility, i.e. its use of vehicles. Sin-Dee and Dinah wait impatiently on a public bus; Alexandra fellates Razmik during an automated carwash; Karo drives his taxicab, trying to help Ashken find her son-in-law. In all of these examples, the characters to some degree lack control of their path. Neither the bus nor the carwash can be sped up, slowed down, or rerouted; they therefore carry a strong sense of inexorability. Karo’s taxicab, too—even though it is his and he makes a choice to use it—is not really his own. It monitors his miles, and as a cab, it interacts with the world according to certain societal rules. Which is to say that owning a taxi is not the same as owning any other car. To refuse Ashken (as would be the prerogative of any other motorist approached by a stranger with a conspiracy theory) would be to show poor customer service; to do so would potentially do damage to Karo’s reputation or even to his identity as a driver.
This inexorability—this rigidity, this mesh of expectations and trajectories, reinforced by all sorts of social and physical machinery—this is what Tangerine wants to say about transgender lives. Inexorability means that even though transgender lives are constantly in motion, they may not necessarily have a set destination. It’s the refusal of Lacan’s mirror again: instead of seeing in the looking glass where the road “should” go, you just go—somewhere. Around. Queerness is in the going, rather than in the went.
Atalia Israeli-Nevo, “a woman who wasn't born trans,” says that her “trans identity took time to settle,” and that “it is still settling throughout time, unfolding, while manifesting itself in the present.” In other words: not only can meanings and symbols and identities be (re)defined variously, they can also be (re)defined over time—identity is therefore a very fluid, temporal process. This notion of process may help us alleviate some of the aforementioned tension between Ashken’s binarism (“a beautifully wrapped lie”), Karo’s tautology (“Christmas is Christmas”), and Halberstam’s social pragmatism (“we use [identity] to make connections”). Maybe identity is neither binary, nor tautological, nor social: maybe it is always in flux, always between those three things, always being negotiated and re-negotiated.
All of this may sound quite dense and theoretical in the context of an argument about Tangerine being fundamentally comic. On the contrary: the inexorability of movement, the emphasis on constant process, and the negotiation and re-negotiation of identity are precisely what make the film comic! Consider, for example, the stressful, climactic Donut Time scene—in which a cacophony of voices, needs, grievances, narratives, characters and traumas all come crashing together in a spectacle of chaos and heartbreak. It’s a harsh, shattering scene, to be sure. But it’s also delicious. This is Tangerine at its most bitingly funny.
Why does the scene bring laughs? Sure, most of it is nervous laughter—because the film counts on us to be compassionate and to have developed some empathy for these characters by now—but a lot of it has to do with tones and rhythms (e.g. the slow fade-out of dialogue and the fade-in of ironically soothing major-key instrumental music as Mamasan waves her arms in a futile effort to calm the crowd, and as we cut to Yeva packing up her child). And a lot of it has to do with movement (e.g. Chester’s hilariously expressive body language as he tries to console Sin-Dee: “whose heart beats for you?”). However, the most complex and relevant bit (when it comes to “mobility” as a social phenomenon) is this: a lot of what works here comedically is the volatile way in which these characters socially rearrange during the scene. Their identities, responsibilities, and interactions are constantly reacting and shifting (e.g. Chester waxing philosophical with Razmik, trying to pull him into a conversation about the definition of cheating). This accelerates as new characters enter the scene, like exciting new ingredients being stirred into a pot.
IV. On marginal spaces and dynamics.
Of course, the problem with referring to these comedic moments as “delicious,” or with likening them to a stirred pot of exciting ingredients, is that the characters in Tangerine are extremely marginalized outsiders. They are sex workers, or Armenian immigrants, or lower-class drug dealers, or women of color. There’s something potentially very ugly about taking pleasure in these characters’ discomfort. If they are ingredients in a pot, then we need to be careful not to objectify their marginal status, not to treat them as if they were some sort of “exotic” delicacy. To adapt Mulvey: these people and their lives do not (or at least should not) exist to be gawked at. When we gawk, we may be guilty of socioeconomic/racial/sexual voyeurism—which brings us back to the initial (and exceptionally difficult) question of whether the film’s comedy is constructive or exploitative.
In defense of Tangerine, it really seems to love its characters. It cares about them, and it wants us to care about them. I don’t think the film is interested in inviting a leering, sneering kind of exploitation, even when it does invite loud laughter.
But there are plenty of discourses which have shown that sometimes cinematic laughter tends to backfire. Fincher didn’t want his Palahniuk adaptation to inspire men to start real-life fight clubs or terror organizations, but men in California, Texas, New Jersey, and New York felt inspired to do so anyway, because in an attempt to create a biting satire, he had accidentally made it look fun; similar tonal backfires were reported, though admittedly with less direct violence, when Scorsese make his satire about Jordan Belfort. It’s entirely possible that with Tangerine, Sean Baker has made a similar mistake: that is, perhaps he has embedded the rhythms and nuances of his jokes into a vision of humanity so queer and distinctive that some audience members will be tempted to assume the jokes are at queerness’ expense, or at the expense of the otherwise marginalized.
In order to root out this assumption, we must take a closer look at the ideological space created by this film. Ideology is inherently normative; therefore, to get a sense of the film’s ideology, we must ask: what norms are operative in this world? And to get a sense of those norms, we must look deeply at the film’s world generally. For filmmaking is worldbuilding: or, as Schoonover and Galt say, “cinema is always involved in world making.”
So what kind of world does Tangerine immerse us into? First, as we have noted above, it is a world full of performances and an acknowledgment of constructedness; second, it is a world defined by (im)mobility; and third, it is a world almost entirely occupied (at least visibly) by marginal folks. These three themes amplify throughout the course of the film, and they each come to a crescendo towards the end. First, notions of performativity reach their climax in scenes like the one in which Razmik sits, solemnly, silently, on the floor, bathed in the flickering lights of his family’s Christmas tree (it is a fake Christmas, but at the same time it is real; his family has fallen apart, but at the same time it has stayed together). Second, notions of mobility reach their climax in scenes like the one in which Alexandra gives Sin-Dee her wig in the laundromat (appearances and conspicuous markers of identity donned and discarded at will, for the sake of relationship—for the sake of comfort—this might be the most humanistic and warm-hearted culminating point possible for this particular theme in this particular film). Conversely: notions of immobility reach their climax in scenes like the one in which Dinah tragically is turned away from her former home (i.e. she finds she has nowhere to go; she is immobilized by circumstance). And third, notions of marginality reach their climax in scenes like the one in which Sin-Dee is attacked and insulted by complete strangers—passers-by who throw a beverage at her from their car window (this is a stark and troubling reminder that despite any defiant rejection of the Lacanian mirror, despite any reconciliation with a best friend, despite any illusion of mobility or at least of the eternal process of progress, Sin-Dee is still—and will always be—on the margins).
With a world like this—meticulously complex, ever-shifting, and impressively dialectical—I find it hard to believe that the humor in Tangerine can really be exploitative or oppressive. This film has no heroes nor villains, no unambiguously privileged powerhouses nor unambiguously powerless victims. Everyone is everywhere and nowhere, in between and in process, moving and not moving. This is the source of the film’s charm, strength, and heart—and it’s also the source of the film’s impeccable sense of humor.
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 Fun side note: this character is literally referred to in the film’s credits as “Parsimonious John.”
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