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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Tuesday, June 25, 2024
Austin Column

Reality shot with an iPhone lens

So last week I wrote about the idea of “historical films” that use actual events as their material, and this week I’d like to look at what is sort of the flip side of that.

Recently, I was at the Sundance Film Festival, where I saw a film called “Tangerine.” And it’s a terrific film; it’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s smart, and it’s completely immersed in its reality. Which is also real reality.

“Tangerine” tells the story of two best friends and transgender sex workers in downtown Los Angeles, as one of them gets out of jail and looks for her cheating pimp, and the other tries to get as many people as she can to her Christmas Eve concert at a rundown bar. It gets sad at certain parts. It’s a really remarkable movie.

Part of its remarkability comes from the movie being set (and filmed) several blocks from the director’s LA home. And to prepare for it, he spent time in the area, getting to know the people who live and work there and the locations (such as perfectly named “The Donut Shop”). He even cast his film with area non-actors, finding his stars Mya Taylor and Kiki Kitana Rodriguez at the local LGBT center (the only professional actors appearing are the Armenian taxi driver and his family who provide a brilliant second storyline).

As a result, everything we see on screen feels real, textured, detailed, all those clichéd words we use when art closely resembles what we see every day. However, what sets “Tangerine” apart from other realist films is the way it presents actuality.

See, the insane thing about “Tangerine” is that it was shot entirely on the iPhone 5s. They used an app to control all the in-camera type stuff, heavily doctored the film in post-production and an attachment that allowed them to shoot with an anamorphic lens—meaning it looked very cinematic. All the same, it looks like it was shot on an iPhone.

And it works. Totally. The wild movements, the saturated colors of LA sunsets, Christmas lights and graffiti blowing up together, the particular grain and frame of an iPhone, all play perfectly with the material reality on display, the emotional naturalism, the straight up truth on display to create something really special.

That “something really special” is a film that shows us how we see the world. Nowadays, most of the pictures and video we take and view, news we read, media on which we socialize, exist on phones. It is how the world in 2015 looks. “Tangerine” doesn’t just use actuality as material; it integrates it into the fabric of the film. In doing so, it gets closer to my point about “real/historical truth” with storytelling on film.

See, what’s great about movies is that while they are intimately related to reality, they are never truly part of reality. They somehow wind up being truer for this separation.

In the case of something like “Tangerine” (or “Medium Cool,” which incorporates documentary footage of riots into its narrative), the use of truth as material for fiction creates something that innately, immediately and directly speaks to reality. “Tangerine” resembles the world we live in; it perfectly expresses the truth of the moment. While it isn’t universal, it perfectly articulates what it feels like to exist here and now, and in doing so steps into history in a way that films like “Lincoln” or “The Imitation Game” never could.

Which is cool. The two treatments of actual truth are basically working in counterpoint harmony. Historical films like “American Sniper” or “Selma” speak the language of cinema, and what they’re saying is a specific historical viewpoint. It comes from a place in reality, but delivers it in a way that tries to make this perspective broadly understood (and cinema’s special ability to put us in another’s shoes is particularly useful for this).

“Tangerine” co-opts the moment’s most widely used means of communication to say something specific in a way that can be broadly understood. It takes the story of very marginalized people, and makes it intelligible for everyone, always. Anyone will be able to watch it and understand not just the people it portrays, but the world they lived in. That’s infinitely more important than bickering over the details of what a period piece film gets right or wrong. It’s remarkable.

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Have you seen a film that has created a reality out of historical events? What are you excited to see come out of Sundance? Email Austin at

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