As the summer’s usual dinosaurs crash and lumber across the mass market—I don’t judge, I merely describe—while unobtrusive little creatures called “indie” and “foreign” skitter for nourishment in the cultural underbrush, I have to wonder: Would the characters in Sean Baker’s Tangerine choose to watch their own little neorealist movie, or would they rather see Jurassic World?
I know what I’m supposed to say: People from underrepresented communities—in this case, impoverished transgender sex workers of African and Latin background—long to see themselves on the screen. Maybe so; but just the number of syllables in that answer makes me wonder how far it’s true. Would Tangerine’s Sin-Dee and Alexandra really want to watch themselves scuffling bravely on the sidewalks of Los Angeles, or would they prefer to have movie avatars who wrangle velociraptors? It’s also standard to say that cinema is richer and more vital for incorporating characters such as those in Tangerine—but richer and more vital for whom? The usual art-house audience—or all the trans sex workers who get their film recommendations from The Nation?
Such questions have knocked around ever since the hero of Sullivan’s Travels went out to make films for the poor and disenfranchised, only to learn that his target audience wanted Disney cartoons. Now, like a chronic rash, the dilemma he faced becomes aggravated every summer, and there is no salve. I can only hope that Sin-Dee and Alexandra won’t be as bored as I was if they pop into Jurassic World. And if someone should entice them into Tangerine, or one of the summer’s other small movies, I hope they’ll find there’s fun to be had.
In Tangerine, the pleasures begin with an act of sharing. It’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles—a time for good will toward men, including men who have become women and work the streets—and so it’s fitting that Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just released from a month in jail, should set off the action by spending her last $2 on a doughnut to divide with Alexandra (Mya Taylor), the only friend who showed up to greet her. The two sit chatting on opposite sides of a booth in Donut Time, Sin-Dee with her fluffy blond Beyoncé wig and leopard-print blouse, Alexandra with her curtain of silky black hair and tank top stretched over recently enhanced breasts, while writer-director-cinematographer-editor Sean Baker shows them in alternation. It isn’t yet clear, though the reason will emerge, why he’s using such a rudimentary ping-pong editing scheme. What matters is that in each shot, a broad sweep of sidewalk and intersection is visible through the window, in surprisingly deep focus. The life of the streets, at a morning hour that’s a little early for these two, is already present in Tangerine; and the streets are where the action is headed, in fury, after Alexandra lets slip the information that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend (or pimp, some would say) has been unfaithful to her with one of his new girls.
To Sin-Dee, there is nothing funny about her pursuit of vengeance, which takes her on a tour of some of the more pungent neighborhoods of LA throughout a long day and into the night. (It’s telling how well the shop signs and billboards suit her mood: Collision Center. Urgent Care.) Alexandra, on the other hand, thinks her friend is being ridiculous—an opinion that distances Tangerine from Sin-Dee just enough to permit you to laugh at the more absurd details of her adventures without losing empathy. The mood is buoyed as well by Rodriguez’s winning performance—her legs driving like a sprinter’s in patterned stockings and white hot pants, her voice jammed up her nose like Minnie Mouse’s even as she declares a very credible rage—while the scenes bounce along with the on-the-fly camera work. The reason behind that simplified editing at the start? Baker and his co-cinematographer, Radium Cheung, shot the entire movie on smartphones. Although this poverty-ethic decision may have limited some of their choices, it still enabled them to capture an extraordinary range of images—from a bleached tracking shot of a sidewalk at noon, to a color-saturated close-up of Alexandra singing wistfully onstage in a bar, to a Stan Brakhage–like explosion of gestural abstraction during a sexual transaction in a car wash—all the while staying as close as a pulse to the performers.
I don’t know whether a real-life Sin-Dee and Alexandra would approve of the way they’re presented in Tangerine. But I think they might appreciate the dignity these characters award themselves (knowing that nobody else is going to grant it to them anyway) and the ambiguity they’re sometimes allowed. (Why does Alexandra rat out Sin-Dee’s pimp? Baker leaves you guessing: Was it mere inadvertence, or did she have a purpose?) Most of all, I think the characters might like to see how fellow feeling is restored at the end. Alexandra and Sin-Dee may be stuck at a laundromat in the early hours of Christmas, both of them broke and neither looking as glamorous as they might like, but they’ve still got each other. Comfort and joy.
Go from low-rent Los Angeles to the outlying districts of Mumbai, change the proudly assertive outcasts from transsexuals to Dalits, and you’ve got the beginnings of Chaitanya Tamhane’s astonishing Court, another film to ride into current view on the long tail of neorealism. Court is beautifully composed in crisp and consistent wide-screen images, rather than ingenious grab-and-go cinematography; its rhythms are calm (to ironic effect) rather than comically frenetic; and its social portraiture is more varied than Tangerine’s, encompassing viewpoints from several different strata of Mumbai. But Court, too, measures the distance between ordinary life and the lavishness of pop culture. Some of the characters (notably the most privileged) live in a bubble of Bollywood songs. The character who sets off the action, by contrast, adheres to traditional Indian music. He teaches it, promotes it, and is likely to die in jail for having performed it on the street.
Narayan Kamble, “the people’s poet,” played by the magnificent nonprofessional Vira Sathidar, has been arrested (again) for declaiming his protest verses in the slums, on an improvised stage. This time, the charge is grave: He is accused of having incited a sewer worker to commit suicide. Has he in fact written a song advising sewer workers that their only way out is to kill themselves? “Not yet,” he drily tells his questioners, “but I wouldn’t mind doing it.” Despite this critical gap in his oeuvre, and the absence of any evidence that the sewer worker in question died by his own hand, the state bears down on Kamble with its full prosecutorial apparatus—suborned witnesses, Victorian-era statutes, hallucinatory police reports, impenetrable multilingual jargon—which it does very, very slowly. Month after month, Kamble wastes away in prison (bail being unthinkable for such a serious offense) while his attorney (Vivek Gomber) trudges from court date to court date, sighing with dismay, incredulity, and a carefully maintained pretense of deference.
With a poise that’s rare in directors making their first feature, Tamhane delivers both a deadpan satire of a rotten legal system and a nuanced portrayal of the people who inhabit it. Most of the time, he follows the defense lawyer, a marvelously hopeless figure who is as honorable and intelligent as he is portly, lonely, habituated to middle-class ease, and put upon by his parents. (It is characteristic of Court’s sense of humor, or despair, that when the lawyer addresses a human-rights conference, his speech is interrupted so that workmen can install a fan on the dais.) But Tamhane also spares time for the lawyer’s opponents: the prosecutor (Geetanjali Kulkarni), who has to pull dinner together for her demanding family after a long day of persecuting Dalits, and the judge (Pradeep Joshi), whose luxurious vacation and unthinking, self-satisfied cruelty are the subject of the film’s final scenes.
The judge likes Bollywood tunes. The defense attorney listens to Mozart, hard bop, and cabaret-style bossa nova. The widow of the sewer worker (played by Usha Bane, who in real life is the widow of a sewer worker) doesn’t seem to notice music—not even Kamble’s folk-based protest songs, which she must have heard but can’t remember. Nor does she have patience for the lawyer’s well-intentioned offer of a little cash. She won’t accept his money, she says—but if he knows of a job, any job at all, she’ll take it.
There’s pop culture, and then there’s high pop: Kurt Weill’s songs, Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and now Phoenix by Christian Petzold. The intensely thoughtful director of Yella, Jerichow, and Barbara has returned with his favorite actress, Nina Hoss, for another of their immaculately realized dramas of psychological suspense and social culpability, this time venturing deep into Fassbinder territory: the ruins of Berlin just after World War II, and the ghosts of old songs and movies.
Cowritten by Petzold and the late Harun Farocki, Phoenix adopts quasi-melodramatic means to confront a subject that films have seldom addressed: the experience of the surviving Jews in Germany after the Holocaust. Rescued from a death camp at the war’s end, her face shattered by bullets, Nelly (Hoss) undergoes reconstructive surgery at a Berlin hospital so that outwardly she becomes an approximation of what she used to be. Inwardly, she feels she won’t be herself again until she is reunited with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a non-Jew with whom she used to perform in cabarets before the Nazis drove her into hiding. Trembling and unsteady, Nelly searches the nightclubs in the American sector until she stumbles upon Johnny. But he’s no longer the piano player she remembers. He now works as a waiter while pimping on the side—and he fails to recognize her.
Johnny thinks he has a use, though, for this fragile woman who has straggled in. If he can teach her to impersonate his wife, Nelly—dead now, he explains—she will be able to claim a substantial sum of money, a little of which he’ll be willing to split with her. Heartbroken, utterly alone, and still desperately in love with the rat, Nelly moves into Johnny’s basement apartment and begins to play along, pretending to learn from him how to turn herself back into herself.
It’s like watching Vertigo told from Kim Novak’s point of view, with this difference: Nelly is stubbornly trying to return to an identity that can no longer exist, now that the world that supported it has been blown apart. This is one of the better uses I’ve seen for the now-pervasive Vertigo trope, not only because it allows Hoss (an infinitely resourceful actor) to transform herself little by little before your eyes, but because a willingness to believe in illusions is central to the historical subject matter of Phoenix. Don’t bother to make up stories about a death camp, Johnny advises Nelly (failing to realize that she’s made up nothing). Nobody wants to hear all that, or see you step off a train looking ragged and starved. Just come back like the Nelly they remember, and everyone will be satisfied.
The hell of it is, he’s right. But at the devastating conclusion, a snatch of pop music—Nelly’s favorite tune from her cabaret days, Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low”—reveals that the self she has recovered is not the one she used to be. It’s a payoff that Hitchcock himself might have envied: the moment when Nelly fades out of focus, just as Johnny opens his eyes.
As for the artists who create pop culture, the summer has brought us strong documentaries about three of them. Each film is fascinatingly different in method and materials, but all have the same story arc: the pain of a youth spent where no one expects to find genius, the exhilaration of mastery and a rising career, and the slide, shockingly fast or agonizingly slow, into breakdown.
Liz Garbus’s What Happened, Miss Simone? is perhaps the most conventional of the three in its weaving together of talking-head interviews, old photos, and archival footage. But the weaving is excellent; and because the subject is Nina Simone—electrifying in performance, fiery in activism—Garbus also gives you by far the densest, most compelling intersection, in any of these films, of personal experience and public issues.
Asif Kapadia’s Amy, on the brief and troubled life of Amy Winehouse, lacks any political dimension but is heartbreaking for all that, and at times enraging. Its distinguishing feature is its comprehensiveness: Because video cameras had become ubiquitous by the time Winehouse was out of the cradle, it seems as if almost everything she did was recorded, from the moment she sang “Happy Birthday” to a teenage friend (and a voice bigger than her body came roaring out) to the morning she was carried dead from her house. Kapadia has assembled it all, revealing a Winehouse who seems shocking not for her addictions (so eagerly reported, so shamefully mocked) but for a lifelong ingenuousness.
Perhaps oddest of all is Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon, an impressionistic portrait of Marlon Brando that approaches the condition of autobiography, having been drawn from a previously unheard trove of audiotapes the actor recorded for purposes of self-documentation and self-hypnosis. The only voice-over in the film is Brando’s—soothing himself, reminiscing, analyzing, justifying. The images, arranged more thematically than chronologically, mix broadcast interviews and excerpts from his best-known films with documentary footage, including scenes of the civil-rights struggles he joined. There is also a computer-generated head of Brando—it’s based on a digital scan of his features made in the 1980s—that recites “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” while pixelated hair flows and dissolves in a cybernetic wind. All is vanity, you might think, except for the performances he left behind.