I arrive a little late at Umspannwerk Kreuzberg to a full house. Seats are packed with 300 people bubbling in excitement for the Berlin premiere of Sean Baker’s Tangerine. The breakout hit of this year’s festival circuit, Tangerine is a hysterical and colorful piece about two transgender sex workers working in Los Angeles. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank my friend Robert for knowing to save me a seat last Saturday. Thanks, Robert.
Probably the worst thing about arriving somewhere late is you are one or two drinks behind everyone else. You have to play catch up fast. And in tonight’s special case, I am not only short a couple whiskey sodas but also a couple complimentary donuts from the event’s seemingly random sponsor: the very humble enterprise that is Dunkin Donuts. There was something ticklishly endearing about watching Berliners in sleek black leather get excited over pink-glazed donuts with rainbow sprinkles.
Berlin Film Society’s director Jack Howard later explained that the choice in sponsor was a deliberate shout-out to Donut Times, a famously unpretentious donut shop on Santa Monica Boulevard in LA that backdrops the climax of Tangerine—a heated showdown between three prostitutes, a pimp named Chester, and a bunch of Armenians. (And you thought your späti was special.)
Augusta Quirk/Magnolia Pictures/Washington Post
Interested, yet? If not, I will also mention director Sean Baker and his team shot Tangerine entirely on an iPhone 5S. That’s right, Baker may have invented a new cinema.
Do yourself a favor and scroll through all the photos you have ever taken with your phone. Admire their asymmetry, lack of focus, general mediocrity—the number of photos taken in the horrible fluorescent light of your favorite bar’s bathroom that you thought would be flattering.
Now go see Tangerine and marvel at what Baker was able to do with a couple iPhones and an anamorphic adapter prototype that costs less than $180. Then, do me a favor and go figure out what exactly “anamorphic adapter prototype” means because I have no idea but a pretty big hunch that this little gadget will help me finally fulfill my destiny of becoming the next Martin Scorsese.
If you can now use an iPhone to create a film-festival hit, then what is next for the industry? I have this thought as I sit next to Robert, eating a chocolate-glazed donut, waiting for the film to start with my fellow gadget-less, anonymous audience members.
But it looks like there are some in this group more important than the rest of us. To my right is an empty seat marked with a “reserved” sign. It’s an ironic sight in this completely full crowd when I can see people in the back looking for remaining seats. Clearly, some people—the semi-Scorseses of the world—are allowed to be late with no consequence.
Robert and I joked about who it could be. Sven Marquadt—taking a pit stop before Berghain? Claire Danes—also taking a pit stop before Berghain? I landed on a minimally more educated guess: film nerds like me will know that last week, the International Berlin Film Festival announced to huge excitement that Meryl Streep would be the Jury president of next year’s competition. (I heard chatter about this later that night at the after-party at Schuchmann’s.)
Maybe Meryl was supposed to show up tonight as part of her first duties as Madam Jury President.
That’s right! Let’s go there. I will be the first to say it:
Meryl Streep Is No-Show at Berlin’s Tangerine Premiere.
I am joking, clearly. But technically, this is a factually correct—might I add, click-baiting—statement that my editor should strongly consider using as a headline for this piece. Whoever that seat was reserved for—be it Streep or just the slightly more-than-average Joe—they never showed up. And it is only their loss, because Tangerine is an immediately important film that should not be missed.
I spy a donut: Rodriguez and Taylor in Tangerine (Sean Baker/Radium Cheung/New York Times)
Brightly hued and constantly bumping to its soundtrack of stanky trap beats, this film is an electric, groundbreaking portrait of a subculture most have never seen, in life or on the silver screen. Most of all, Tangerine is about how pivotal friendship is to survival. It is the complex relationship and crackly banter between the two main characters Sin-dee Rella and Alexandra that makes the film a success.
More importantly, actresses who are transgender women themselves are playing the leading roles. The performances of enormously talented newcomers Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are a kind of ha-ha-go-to-hell to a Hollywood that likes to cast and give Academy Awards to (ahem, Jared Leto) “dudes in dresses” when so many unemployed transgender performers go unrecognized and transgender communities worldwide experience extreme violence. There has been even more buzz about this film recently because its distributor Magnolia Pictures is the first in film history to make a major awards season push for transgender actors.
Next time Tangerine shows in Berlin, do not miss out because this film is likely to only continue selling out venues. “Pull a Robert, not a Streep”—may that be the motto that guides all your future movie-going experiences.
And speaking of, Berlin Film Society’s next event, on October 25th and November 25h, is called Cherry Picks, a new monthly film night dedicated to the art of short film.
Unfortunately, both nights are BYOD, so bring your own donuts.