Life Versus Survival in “Tangerine”

By Johanna Isaacson |

In the midst of the Greek debt crisis and Syriza’s initial attempt to defend the country from extreme austerity measures, Chris Giles wrote derisively in the Financial Times of the “problem child Greece.” [1] The grown-ups of the Troika, he asserted, are at a loss on how to cope with Greece’s toddler-like antics. The EU was united in considering Syriza’s behavior to be a “tantrum.” The only division among the camps was how to treat this deviant youngster. The options were either to act the disciplinarian, imposing further austerity, to patronizingly “treat them like grown ups,” presumably by modeling a stoic patience until the country collapsed and caved in, or to admit that they never wanted to “parent” Greece in the first place, and to “put the naughty child up for adoption” (i.e., exclude). This understanding of maturity—insisting that there is no alternative to harsh austerity for ordinary people (as large financial institutions are bailed out)—has become dominant in our moment.

Here, I want to make the claim that Tangerine — a film that follows Sin-di — an African American transgender prostitute on her first day out of jail, as she pursues her cheating pimp boyfriend and his lover through the streets of West Hollywood — offers a counter-discourse to this pervasive cultural narrative. A collaboration between director/writers Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch and amateur transgender actors Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, allows for galvanizing, child-like, experiment and encounter with the everyday microclimates of austerity. The highly psychogeographic film maps urban space as simultaneously the site of tragic closure and utopian openings subject to the logic of the dérive. Contributing to this experimental, DiY feel, Tangerine is filmed exclusively with cell phones, giving it a grainy and jumpy look that suits its alternatingly frantic, lush, and squalid tonalities.


The events of the film take place on Christmas Eve, and this sets up the refusal of normative familial sentimentality and its replacement by Sin-di and her best friend Alexandra’s frenetic journey through the city. The film begins with the two women at a shop called Donut Time where Alexandra lets drop that Sin-di’s boyfriend Chester has been sleeping around while she’s been in jail (it later turns out that she actually went to jail for having agreed to hold his drugs). After a moment of hesitation, Sin-di decides to confront Chester and Dinah, the white “fish” (cis woman), he’s been sleeping with. At this moment, as at every other juncture in the film where Sin-di decides to pursue Chester and Dinah, it is clear that in addition to being motivated by anger, Sin-di’s quest is a way to counter the threat of stasis in the impoverished terrain that circumscribes the small urban zone she inhabits (implicitly, the only place in the city offering relative safety and survival for transgender prostitutes). The film, in fact, is driven by Sin-di’s refusal to passively accept the conditions of stark survival. Her galvanized presence, at times, is fueled by violence, squalor, debasement, and pettiness; however, her activity is the film’s primary source of friendship, love, and eros, pointing to the film’s insistence that she and her companions are entitled to demand more than bare life. This summons to mind a graffiti from the 1968 Paris uprisings: “Beautiful, maybe not, but O how charming: life versus survival.”

Despite Alexandra’s constant plea for “no drama” she and the film’s other characters travel in Sin-di’s wrathful wake. As Sin-di seeks out information about Dinah and Chester’s whereabouts, Alexandra hands out flyers advertising her upcoming performance. Although she spends all day trying to draw interest in the show, in the end it is only Sin-di and her then-captive Dinah who attend. While Alexandra is singing at the near empty club (it turns out she has actually paid to perform there), a third key character is also experiencing the necessary disappointments of Christmas. Razmik, an Armenian cab driver, spends the day picking up downtrodden and difficult customers, and when he doesn’t have a passenger, pays transgender prostitutes for sex. His Christmas Eve will culminate with his mother-in-law and wife discovering his secret in a screwball melee with all the main characters, back at Donut Time.

The framing of the over-determined events of Christmas Eve is a key example of Tangerine’s counter-discursive stand against a hegemonic rhetoric privileging maturity, realism, austerity, and paternal themes. Rather than capitulating to the demoralizing realities of poverty and oppression in the name of “growth,” the characters mine the microclimates of their environment for moments of agency, reciprocity and utopian transcendence. Alexandra’s potentially depressing performance of “Toyland” in a near-empty club unexpectedly becomes one of these utopian moments, in which the characters are lit up by a child-like enchantment in, as the lyrics go, “little girl and boy land.” The general jumpiness of the film fades away and the scene becomes still and warmly lit, basking in Alexandra’s smooth voice. Sin-di harnesses all her restless energy and attention to fix an admiring gaze on her friend and this moment of recognition seems to project both women out of the frantic and wearying struggle that we have witnessed throughout the day. This respite is momentary but it is clear that this is no squalid surrogate for heteronormative family bliss, but rather a promise of a world of what Kristin Ross calls “communal luxury.” Rather than “maturity,” it is the characters’ child-like spontaneity, scrappiness and imaginativeness that allows this reprieve from austerity’s mean streets.

Relatedly, the common theme of L.A./Hollywood as a shallow tinseltown when compared with the depth and solidity of stable, Midwestern styled family life, is aesthetically challenged by the auratic Christmas lights that line the streets of West Hollywood. As the women navigate the city, scattered, colorful bulbs take on a luminosity that visually draws them out of a squalid “realism” into a utopian dreaminess, seeming to momentarily lift them out of what Walter Benjamin calls the homogenous empty time of progress into an alternate vision of history. Razmik’s mother-in-law, Ashken, calls Los Angeles “a beautiful lie.” But her sentiment is belied by her role as guardian of heteronormative family values. Instead, LA is a not-so-beautiful, unfulfilled promise that allows for differing microclimates and temporalities. Sin-di and Alexandra refuse the temporality of the victors and instead point to what Walter Benjamin frames as a messianic temporality in which:

Class struggle… is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. But these latter things, which are present in class struggle, are not present as a vision of spoils that fall to the victor. They are alive in this struggle as confidence, courage, humor, cunning and fortitude, and have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, what has been strives to turn, by dint of a secret heliotropism – toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. [2]

This temporality counters the “adult,” “mature,” tyrannical history of the victors with the spontaneous, ephemeral, future-oriented history of class struggle. In this “secret heliotropism,” we can make out the lineaments of an untapped representational strategy countering the spectacular and entropic culture industry, whose logic of defeatism and resignation makes it another cop, keeping us all at bay.


Works Cited

[1] Chris Giles. “How to Deal With a Problem Child Like Greece.” Financial Times. April 19, 2015. Web.Halberstam, Judith. “In a Queer Time and Place: transgender bodies, subcultural lives.” New York: New York University Press, 2005. Print.

[2] Walter Benjamin. “On the Concept of History.” Selected Writings Volume 4. Eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.


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