2015 is going to be remembered for a lot of different things. Political, social, and cultural events seemed to be happening every other week, and I could easily see it being regarded as a pretty important year in the future. But I don’t really talk about important things like social movements or politics on this site, I’m more comfortable rambling about the Simpsons and comic books, so I’d rather discuss something more in my wheelhouse. Over the last couple days I watched two movies that tackle a very under-served market in the country. The topic of being transgender is something that’s becoming increasingly relevant, and 2015 was the year that we got two movies that touted being pro-trans, the first time to my knowledge that the subject was brought up from Hollywood in overly positive ways. Trans characters are rarely the protagonists of movies, and usually were offensive side-characters. Now, I want to get this out of the way right off the bat, I don’t personally know anyone who identifies as trans, and as a result I’m not exactly positive I know the correct words and terms I should be using. I do want to be respectful, and would love to learn the right terminology, but right now I’m at a bit of a disadvantage. I’m going to do my best, but if I write anything that’s wrong or offensive, I would love to know so I can correct it and learn for the future. Now, with that established, I want to talk about Tangerine and the Danish Girl, two movies about the topic of transgender that couldn’t be more different.
Both films feature trans characters as the protagonists, and look at their struggles in human lights, painting them as sympathetic characters instead of punchlines. But the way they go about it are incredibly different. One is a big-budget prestige picture that’s full of big name actors, an Oscar-winning director, gorgeous cinematography, and comes from a big studio. The other is actually a good movie, and has actual trans stars, is an indie flick, and was shot on iPhones. If these movies could be any more different, I can’t imagine it. I suppose one could be animated. It’s fascinating to me that two incredibly different movies about a similar topic that Hollywood had until now largely ignored came out in the same year. That seems like progress to me, but I could be wrong.
I’ll talk about Tangerine first, because I saw it first. Now, I first became aware of Tangerine when pretty much every movie critic I follow started raving about it when it was hitting the festivals. It was a frenetic movie about trans prostitutes in LA, filmed on iPhones with actresses who are actually trans. It was unlike anything people had seen before, and they were freaking out about it. So I gave it a shot, and I found it pretty good. It didn’t blow me away like most critics, and I’m not really sure why. The plot revolves around two trans prostitutes in West Hollywood, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). It’s Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee has just gotten out of prison to find that her boyfriend/fiance/pimp Chester has been cheating on her while she’s in prison, so she starts storming around the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles to find Chester, and the woman he’s been sleeping with, and get her revenge. It’s filmed in a gritty, frenetic style that’s popping with colors, and shows the beauty hiding under the grimy surface of the city. And the thing I didn’t really realize about the movie before I saw it was that it’s essentially a comedy. They aren’t really cracking jokes or anything, but it is a funny movie, kind of a comedy of errors actually. Sin-Dee just can’t catch a break, and we’re treated to all sorts of odd characters she comes across. But honestly, when it boiled down to it, I didn’t really connect with Sin-Dee’s story. She was essentially the main character, and we followed her through most of the movie, and I never really engaged with her. She was loud and abrasive, in a way that didn’t really endear her to me, and she just seemed like a pretty crappy friend for most of the movie until the wonderfully sweet ending. The things that really sold the movie for me were the stories that basically became B-Plots. We follow Alexandra occasionally in the movie, and find out that she’s trying to get out of the sex-trade and become a singer. She’s paid money to a club that will let her sing Christmas carols that night, in the hopes that something will happen with this new career. She’s incredibly tragic, and when absolutely no one, not even Sin-Dee shows up to her show, that she paid money to have, it was legitimately heart-breaking. There’s also Rezmik, an Armenian cab-driver that goes around the city, picking up a collection of terrible passengers, before we find that he has a thing for the trans-prostitutes, Sin-Dee in particular, and it’s causing some issues with his marriage. Rezmik is stuck in an odd marriage with a woman he doesn’t seem to really like, and her over-bearing mother that lives with them, and he sneaks out to get even a modicum of joy in his life with the trans prostitutes. When his mother-in-law finds out about his activities and brings his wife along with her to confront him in the seedy donut shop, it’s also incredibly sad, because we see that his already crappy life has just been made crappier. I feel like if the movie hadn’t revolved around Sin-Dee so much, and made it more a collection of vignettes that gave all the characters equal screen time before shoving them all together at the donut shop in the end, it may have worked better for me, because as it is Tangerine became a movie with some fascinating sub-plots and a lackluster main plot that ended up being an enjoyable watch, but not something that knocked my socks off.
The performances were generally really good, and I was absolutely shocked that the movie looked good for being filmed on iPhones. When I first heart about that cinematographic choice, I was a little concerned, because that seemed like a very dangerous precedent to start. I don’t need to see any idiot with an iPhone thinking they can make a movie. But there was actually a lot of craft in the shots, and for long stretches of the movie I forgot I was even watching something shot with a phone. It ended up being really apropos, having this gritty and counter-culture world shot with gritty equipment that wasn’t mainstream. The film had a charming ugliness to it that really worked for the setting. I’ve never been to these parts of LA, but it feels authentic to me, an actual snapshot of the locale and the people that live there.
And then there’s the Danish Girl. The big prestige picture from Universal that has an all-star cast, a popular director, and is based on a (not really at all) true story. It’s the Oscar-bait trans movie that will definitely be seen by more people, and expose more of the American people to this subject. And it’s awful. Just a bad movie. My wife and I watched it the other night, and about halfway through just turned to each other and were like “Wow. This movie stinks.” But I make it a mission to not give up on movies, and slog through them, even if I’m having a terrible time, and I wasn’t going to let the damn Danish Girl break me.
Now, when I heard about this movie, I figured I was going to enjoy it. Yeah, it sounded incredibly Oscar-Baity to me from the first moment, but there seemed to be a lot going for it. Despite it’s numerous issues, I do like the Kings Speech, and even though I loathed his version of Les Miserables, I figured director Tom Hooper could be trusted to give us an interesting biopic. I absolutely adore Alicia Vikander, who is having a really tremendous year, and I haven’t seen much from Eddie Redmayne, but I was a fan of the Theory of Everything from last year, so I figured he would put in a good performance as one of the first people to ever get a gender-reassignment surgery. And hoo boy was I wrong. Alicia Vikander was good, actually brought a pretty great performance to this shlock. And it looked pretty. Good work Danny Cohen, you’re a good cinematographer. But the rest of the movie? Kind of a trainwreck. I don’t even know where to begin with this movie. It’s about Einar and Gerda Wegener, two married painters living in Copenhagen in the 20’s. They live a Bohemian life, supporting themselves with their art, but when Einar is forced to wear pantyhose and a dress to model for one of Gerda’s paintings, he apparently instantly realizes that he’s trans, and starts experimenting with cross dressing. Gerda seems to think that it’s funny at first, and the two go to some fancy ball with Einar dressed as a woman that they name Lili. As Lili, she kisses some fellow artist, and things start to get complicated. Einar explains that he’s apparently always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body, and just never thought about it or mentioned it before, and we’re then treated to what felt like hours of them dealing with this. He gets labelled psychotic by psychiatrists, and they do weird things with radiation to his groin to try and fix things, which just makes him a mess. Their marriage starts to fall apart as he ends up learning about a German professor who is interested in trans people. Einar and Gerda meet with the professor, and Einar ends up going through with the first ever sexual-reassignment surgery to actually become Lili. And since it’s the 1920’s and this is a first of it’s kind surgery, things don’t go well and Lili dies.
This movie. It felt offensive to me, and I don’t even know any trans people. It was paced and filmed as if we were watching a movie about someone with a terminal illness, or a psychological disorder. It was so bleak, and just seemed to hammer in how badly things go for trans people, but not in a particularly inspiring way. It just felt like the movie was trying to say there was something wrong with Einar, that actually being Lili was ruining his life, which doesn’t seem terribly pro-trans to me. By the end, I basically felt that Einar/Lili was the damn villain of the movie. She was just terrible to her wife Gerda, throughout the whole thing. She cheated on her, she lied, she kept secrets, and thought about no one but herself. Alicia Vikander was the only likable character in the whole movie, which seems like a weird call for a movie that’s purporting to be pro-trans. And then we get to some stuff that may be my own ignorance…but it didn’t seem to me like the filmmakers understood what being trans meant. Einar decides he’s trans pretty much only because he likes women’s clothes, and then basically develops some sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we used to call multiple personality disorder, where he became Lili, and refused to even acknowledge that Einar was real. Like she was two different people. Now, I’m going to say again, I don’t personally know any trans people, and am not overly aware of what it means to be trans, but to my knowledge, this is incorrect. This movie seemed to posit that inside the body of Einar Wegener there were two completely different people with different thoughts, feelings, tastes, abilities, and genders, and that we had to kill the Einar personality so the Lili one could live. And that seems incorrect to me. I’ve always gotten the impression from when I’ve heard trans people interviewed that they’re still the same person, just with the wrong gender. Sexual-reassignment surgery doesn’t kill the person you were, never to acknowledge their existence again, I thought it was to make the person you are the correct gender. I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong and this movie understand what it means to be trans perfectly, but to me it felt like it missed the mark like crazy. And even if it did understand the trans struggle, it was still a boring, melodramatic mess with lazy performances and only one likable character.
These movies could not be more different. A dour drama about someone with the money and ability to get a sex change that attempts to be an inspiring true story, and a zany buddy comedy about two poor trans prostitutes trying to make their way in the world. One was made with A-list actors, an Oscar winning director and the other was with two women who are actually trans and aren’t actresses and was shot on real streets with iPhones. One was a stodgy period piece that didn’t seem in touch with anything, and the other was an incredibly modern movie that felt like something you could actually see on the streets today. My opinions of Tangerine actually went up after seeing Danish Girl, because I realized just how bad a movie about the trans topic could be handled, and how gracefully Tangerine was made. I still don’t think Tangerine is as amazing as most other people, but it definitely went up a couple notches in my book. These movies are both pretty important, because they’re the first times, to my recollection, that trans characters were put to the front of a movie, and we got to see the issues they deal with in real light. Its just a shame one of them was pretty crappy, and that that one is the movie more people will probably see. Even though I didn’t love either of these movies, they’re incredibly important and influential, and I see it as a sign of progress that we got two movies, especially two movies that are so different and tell such unique stories, in one year.
Tangerine was written by Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch, was directed by Sean S Baker, and was released by Magnolia Pictures, 2015.
The Danish Girl was written by Lucina Coxon, directed by Tom Hooper, and released by Universal Pictures International, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk