Situated at the intersection between technical ingenuity and creative imagination, the Oscars’ Best Cinematography category recognizes filmmaking as the fusion of art and craft that it is. Ideally, the award designates the most harmonious combination of form and function, films where the camerawork complements, enriches, or otherwise supports the story and mood at hand. This is what a cinematographer does: The director outlines their intentions for a scene in terms of the overall look and feel of the shot, and the cinematographer (a term used almost interchangeably with “director of photography”) selects the camera, film stock, lenses, and filters, essentially creating the visual profile for the film. After watching The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl, viewers may believe they know what a “David Fincher film” looks like—cool color palette, crisply defined depth of focus, fluid tracking movements. What they have really observed is DP Jeff Cronenweth’s consistent interpretation of Fincher’s vision, which is a fine distinction, but a crucial one all the same.
For his fire-starting new feature Tangerine, filmmaker Sean Baker cut out the middle man between his brain and the screen by stepping in to shoot the picture himself, along with assistance from Radium Cheung, a camera operator on Baker’s previous film Starlet. What’s more, he shot the entire feature on an iPhone 5 hooked up to an anamorphic lens, the first time that the casual consumer technology has been used to shoot a feature-length film for theatrical release. Cries of gimmickry followed the discovery of Baker’s unorthodox methods, as such accusations follow every work of art that dares to attempt something conceptually unprecedented, but Baker’s one-of-a-kind cinematography is anything but a cheap hook. More than simply “the iPhone movie,” Tangerine actively integrates its Hollywood outsider’s technology into its guiding concern with the outskirts of polite society. A piece of novel equipment only has worth in the hands of a skilled filmmaker like Baker, and so the real brilliance lies not in the audacity to use an iPhone to shoot a feature, but the intelligence to use it well.
On a purely visual level, Baker manages to spin the qualities of the iPhone that might be considered drawbacks into strengths befitting the subject matter onscreen. The chief impediment of the iPhone is the basic “feel” of the footage that it records, which has a cheap, low-definition look when compared to more sophisticated equipment. In interviews, Baker has confessed to employing computer programs to tinker with the artificial grain of the digital video, making it look slightly more cinematic than your run-of-the-mill homemade sex tape. But Baker’s wisest move is contouring his shots to the physical profile of the iPhone as a tool, fully capitalizing on its light weight and ease of movement.
The basic flimsiness of the iPhone enabled Baker to create a spontaneous, agile, freely mobile aesthetic that reflects the live-wire energy emanating from lead actresses Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. The early sequences of Sin-Dee Rella (Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Taylor) power-walking through L.A. to the booming strains of trap music feel even more kinetic and powerful as Baker’s puny camera practically jogs to keep up with them. When Sin-Dee drags her mortal enemy Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) onto a bus by her hair, Baker has the flexibility to duck in through the folding door and jump on with her. Baker’s plot rambles without a direction in mind, sending Sin-Dee on a wild fish chase around and around the SoCal sprawl. His camera patiently follows her where she leads, present and ready to observe whatever volatile shenanigans go down at a given moment.
But Baker’s selection of the iPhone says as much with what it represents as what it does. Consider the iPhone not only as a movie camera, but a populist implement that cuts through issues of money during production. It’s true that Baker resorted to the unusual strategy due to financial constraints; the final price tag on Tangerine’s shooting landed in the low-rent neighborhood of $100,000, placing a top-notch digital camera well out of the crew’s price range. But more importantly, that $100,000 was the cost of the total creative freedom required to realize such a defiantly un-mainstream premise as Tangerine’s. It is a clear and regrettable fact that no major studio in the year 2015 would be willing to write a check for a picture about two black transgender prostitutes screeching around L.A. in search of a wayward pimp. Tapping the iPhone for the photography of the film did a lot to return power to the people, and made it possible to tell a story that never could have otherwise survived.
Both Sin-Dee and Alexandra, as well as closeted cabbie Razmik (Karren Karagulian), scurry about the periphery of the civilized world, fighting tooth and nail every day to scrape together a living. They all face indignities, whether from a shitfaced patron yakking in the back seat of Razmik’s cab or hateful strangers dousing Sin-Dee with a cupful of urine. And in many cases, these indignities stem from the characters’ refusal to adhere to the straight, white, male, cisgender expectations that society imposes upon them. Tangerine documents life in the margins, and that’s exactly where Tangerine came from. It’s an independent film about true independence, and the iPhone photography serves as an emboldening reminder of the potential that lies, often unspent, outside of the establishment. The film art that iPhones produce usually takes the shape of Vines or Worldstar videos, the provinces of common rabble without the money or industry connections to mount a major motion picture. Baker realized the full capabilities of the iPhone both as an extratextual symbol and a one-way avenue leading to a new brand of janky-ass neorealism. This is the bright future that Shane Carruth teased with Primer, a sci-fi head trip so committed to its dizzyingly dense plotting that Hollywood never would’ve laid a finger on it. Lowered costs eliminate the need for compromises appeasing corporate interests, and Baker seized the means of production (and pre-production, and post-production) to tell a story anathema to the profit margin.
The Best Cinematography race has been handily dominated for the past two years by master cameraman Emmanuel Lubezki, collecting back-to-back wins for his work on Gravity and Birdman. And as supremely gifted as Lubezki is, his recent run of Oscar gold handily illustrates the error that Baker and Tangerine do not make. Lubezki wowed Academy voters with his elegant tracking shots that often roll on and on for minutes at a time without cutting, seamlessly escorting the audience around the vacuum of space or the labyrinth of hallways backstage at a Broadway temple of theatre. It’s nifty and impressive, but it doesn’t elevate the material it’s there to serve. Cohesion with the story at hand distinguishes the gimmicks from the formal breakthroughs, and Baker’s brave new technique exists symbiotically with the film that contains it. In a way, Tangerine is not entirely unlike the monochrome paintings that invite onlookers to scoff and allege that “anyone could’ve done that.” Anyone could have shot this movie. The iPhone was waiting right there for whoever would have the gumption to use it, and that’s the point. None of us thought to.