It seems to me after this week and a bit that stories exist on a spectrum between reality and fantasy. In the former, the story attempts to portray what is really there. In the latter, the storyteller condenses and refines reality in order to more clearly express a concept. They each have their flaws. A story too real feels meaningless. A story too fantasy feels fake.
Tangerine is a film of reality. A masterpiece shot on an iPhone, that uses the phone to gain an intimacy of shot, a physical closeness, that even today’s mobile DSLRs cannot. And yet, there is no sacrifice of image quality. I remember a side-on shot of main character Sin-Dee striding (and this is a transwoman with one hell of a stride, perfectly scored with thumpingly-loud music) down a sidewalk, against the bright orange bloom of Los Angeles’ setting sun and that memory is beautiful. But leave aside the sense of presence the means of video capture brings. Tangerine is real in subject. It relates the day in the life of two black transwomen prostitutes, one on a vengeful hunt for the girl who cheated with her boyfriend, the other doing business until her gig at a local club, and one Armenian cab driver, again on his daily business. Its subjects feel real, because – speaking as a Brit who has never been to LA, and knows nothing of it – I didn’t know this microcosm existed until now.
There is reality in sudden visibility. There is also reality in an absence of ease. Tangerine assaults the senses. Music is sudden, loud and sudden, silent. Dialogue is raucous and delivered at a speed that leaves just the gist of words in the brain. The characters all live within various oppressive systems they do not challenge, for unspoken reasons likely to do with limited will and capacity. They are all seeking happiness to the best of their ability, and that seeking is always compromised – they must either hurt themselves or others to get what they want. Yet despite this ugliness, the film contains within itself moments of goodness, and pure goodness too because it is goodness enacted on impulse, without calculation. It is a movie, not about resolving situations so they can no longer harm, but rather, about living through everyday harm, and the little moments that allow such life to continue.
To counterpoint Tangerine’s reality, this week and a half also brought me some fantasy, in two stories characterised by less complexity but more fine-tuned exploration of theme. It was my third viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road, and though the film may never quite reach the same heart-attack levels of tension the first viewing did, it remains utterly incredible. The thing about it that keeps amazing me on every viewing is how embedded the structures of the world the story wants us to want to overthrow are in the most minor aspects of the film – in gestures, in clothing, in background actors and their speech, in throwaway references to unexplained things. Fury Road wants to do two things. 1) Create massive, interesting looking and tense as fuck car battles. 2) Overthrow the patriarchy. And that second one ambition is no easy thing to accomplish. The whole reason patriarchy is such a difficult thing to bring down is because its structures are so endemic to life they have been internalised into individuals’ worldviews. Fury Road tackles this challenge by investing every little aspect of this world with evidence of oppression. The warboys’ religion, the way they fling themselves to death on the word of three gross old men, the way Cheedo the Fragile tries to return to Immortan Joe seeing her value as property as the surest guarantor of her safety, the same Immortan Joe screaming at Angharad not to endanger his child, his property…religion, word choice, the very clothing of Immortan Joe (the image of musculature and medals encasing something diseased and foul) all is designed to express and evoke the oppression the characters wish to overcome. And it appears in the film with such density that there is no need for us to see what Joe did to his wives, or what Joe did to Furiosa. The specificity of his acts is not important, given the evidence of oppression and perverted masculinity that exists within every design choice of the movie. This is a tool fantasy provides: unbound by the real, it can shape every aspect of the world to express what the storyteller desires. Fury Road uses it very well.
The other of the week’s fantasies was the Hateful Eight. Here what distinguishes this film as more ‘fantastic’ than the ‘reality’ of Tangerine is the characters. The characters in Tangerine are mixtures, good and bad impulses surfacing and sinking in constant flux. The Hateful Eight however are more straightforward. This is Quentin Tarantino’s exploration of humans as hating animals. It is a movement beyond the vengeance movies he’s spent the last few decades making, ever since Kill Bill in fact. He explicitly distances the violence the film contains from any sense of justice through the character Oswaldo Mobray’s comment that only the dispassionate executor can transfigure a lynching into justice. The violence of the film may be in reaction to wounds, whether against one’s person, one’s race or one’s kin, but it is never just, because the characters that wield it are so consistently vicious. Anything we might recognise as goodness in the Hateful Eight feels doomed by its very existence, though Tarantino always ensures that its demise is driven by the story not just the requirements of his theme. This is a film that ends in togetherness, like Tangerine. Unlike Tangerine though, where caring and succour emerge in response to shocking adversity, in Hateful Eight togetherness is borne out of a shared satisfaction in victimisation. This is the fantasy of Hateful Eight. Humans are neither creatures of hate, nor creatures of love – we are both. But in Hateful Eight, Tarantino makes his humans pure haters, because it is the hate he wants to examine.
Here then, my diary, are three films. Tangerine: a film that contains the breadth of reality. A film set in a city known the world over for the dream of itself that it sells, choosing to publicise the life that dream masks. And then there is Fury Road and Hateful Eight: a film that reimagines the world to clearly embed oppression in its every detail, and a film that reimagines humanity in order to examine how we hate, who we hate, and what it is to live with hate. Two approaches to storytelling, either side of a spectrum, both with worth so long as they live up to their specific ambitions.