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Notebook Reviews: Sean Baker's "Tangerine"

A transcrewball comedy of unassuming yet towering proportions.
“An emotional debt is hard to square” —Iceberg Slim
In the treacherous waters of mass narcissism, Sean Baker's cinema is a floating anomaly. While many of his peers' careers are built on the compulsive cult of (their) vacant selves, and the artful maintenance of the ego seems to be the sole artistic purpose of their cinema (from Alex Ross Perry to Miguel Gomes, the plague is as vast as it is virulent), Baker's cinema is an antithetical response to this widespread tendency. With the selfie rapidly becoming the ultimate aesthetic form of our times, his work constitutes an affective disentanglement from the deadly embrace of the amour de soi. But instead of traveling to faraway lands to impress his own gaze onto subjects that cannot be possibly comprehended, as in the case of the Sensory Ethnography Lab flicks and their post-human Orientalism, Sean Baker has consistently pointed his camera six feet beyond his navel. There, in this unglamorous proximity, this uniquely talented director has intertwined the impassioned fabric of his cinema.
Tangerine is possibly his most accomplished film to date and the upward trajectory of his filmography bodes well as far as his potentialities are concerned. Again after Starlet the director has shot and set his new movie in Los Angeles, and within its web of concrete where roads meet more often than people do, a heartwarming Christmas tale unfolds. Sin-dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is freshly out of the can, her comeback to liberty takes a stop at a donuts vendor to meet her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for an unceremonious Christmas Eve treat. The merciful spirit of nativity quickly turns vengeful when Sin-dee finds out, thanks to Alexandra's “accidental” tip-off, that Chester (James Ransone), his employer-cum-boyfriend, has cheated on her with an “actual girl.” Fuel-injected with jealousy she catapults herself into the spasmodic and enraged search for said bitch as Alexandra unsuccessfully tries to rein her in. Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver, roams the streets of Los Angeles with heavy heart and a keen eye for its streetwalkers, taking turns with a motley variety of paying passengers in the backseats and paid-for ones with whom he shares the front seat.
As the city gears up with indifference to the celebration of Jesus Christ's birthday, our lowly heroes hustle about their daily errands. Alexandra, busy promoting her show that night, stops by at Ramzik's car-wash to make his wait more pleasurable and raise a quick buck. Sin-dee in the meantime has laid her hands on the culprit of her broken heart, shell-shocked Dinah (Mickey O'Hagan), and is dragging her by the hair in front of Chester to hear what he has to say. Ramzik's family dinner is enough of a repellent for him to make up an excuse and leave his wife and relatives behind to join Alexandra and Sin-dee, though his mother in law appears skeptical...
Always on the verge of spinning out of control, the film holds all of its characters together and on the same emphatic narrative plane, alternating furious vortexes with pensive suspensions.
With Altman-esque dexterity, the director orchestrates this urban carol stripped of any materialist morale and pulled together by the raw force of feelings, be they jealousy, guilt, love, anger or resignation. The characters inhabit a familiar universe where contingencies rather than ambitions are the sign posts on the road to nowhere, that thankless district called life. But instead of victimizing with sociological condescension these marginal characters, the film invests them with the poignant authority and dignity that featureless protagonists of daily epics wear with style. Their solitude and desperate need for love is recognizably close to our own;we feel the affinities rather than the differences. Baker's subtle understanding of the human condition shines through in this transcrewball comedy of unassuming yet towering proportions where sadness and hilarity sit at the same table.
That need for the human affection and intimacy homo sapiens call love is the unsentimental pillar around which every character orbits frantically. A magisterial soundtrack brings movement out from the frame into the spectator's flesh, not only chronicling the characters' unrest but physically propelling them into action. The movie's palette is saturated with the Los Angeles light and the vivid iridescence of red, the pigment of passion as well as that of Christmas. When the camera is not dynamically chasing the characters with fluid movements or ransacking their inner musings, anonymous city glimpses are framed in a canvas of elegant squalor. The director strikes an effortless balance between formal experimentation and humanity, showing how wo/men's picaresque romance on earth is transversely universal.And does all this by “simply” pointing a smartphone the opposite direction of a selfie.

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