Be Your Own Self: The Lessons Of 'Do I Sound Gay?' And 'Tangerine'
Some movie titles tell you exactly what the movie's going to be about. Others, not so much.
The new documentary Do I Sound Gay? falls firmly into the first category. (The comedy Tangerine, which has nothing to do with citrus, falls just as firmly into the latter; more about it in a moment.)
But first, the obvious question: Do I sound gay? I mean, you hear me on the radio all the time. (Or, if you don't, you can also hear me in the audio link above.) So really, do I?
I think I do. But if I do, what does that mean exactly? And should I care? That's more or less the starting point for documentarian David Thorpe, who's fine with being — but less fine with sounding — gay. He begins his movie by clearing his throat and reading the opening credits aloud, so you can hear his voice for a moment.
Then he poses the title question to folks in the street and they tell him in no uncertain terms that he does sound gay. And having established that, he sets out not just to change the way he sounds but to understand why he wants to change it. It's a quest that takes him to academics, voice coaches, psychologists and columnist and gay activist Dan Savage, who opines that a lot of gay men, having been bullied in school for being gay, understandably try to eliminate any traits — manners of speech, of gait, of dress — that might betray them.
So there are stereotypes to avoid, but that doesn't say where the stereotypes come from ... or why they're negative. A film historian posits that the pop culture cues are everywhere — including Disney villains like Peter Pan's sibilant Captain Hook, Aladdin's imperious Jafar and The Lion King's supercilious Scar — before making the sensible point that a child raised on such imagery might well come to associate evil with what's generally thought to be a gay man's voice.
And Thorpe doesn't stop there. He also breezes through other influences, Super 8 films of his own childhood and visits to a speech therapist. In the process, he learns to alter his voice and to question the notion that that could ever be a good thing. And he ends up presenting a light, entertaining argument for being your own self, whatever you sound like.
One person who does not need to hear that message is the heroine of Tangerine. Sin-Dee — as in Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) — is a transgender Los Angeles prostitute who is gonna be her own self no matter what anyone thinks in this microbudget dramedy.
We meet her on her first day back on the street after a month in the slammer as she greets her trans friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in their favorite doughnut shop with a cheery "Merry Christmas eve, bitch."
In less than a minute, Alexandra has established her credentials as best friend on the planet, and also let the cat out of the bag about Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester (a deliciously shifty James Ransone) fooling around with another of his girls. And not just any girl. When Sin-Dee discovers that her rival is a "biological" woman, she gets uncharacteristically quiet for a moment and then smiles to herself, prompting an alarmed "What are you plotting?" from Alexandra and setting Tangerine's plotless but enormously eventful day in motion.
Director Sean Baker offers up a gallery of the vivid, profane, utterly riotous characters who inhabit the fringes of LA's sex industry — taxi drivers, pimps, wives and Eastern European mothers-in-law. It's a bargain basement tour in many ways, but also an innovative one. I mentioned earlier that the film had a microbudget sensibility: Baker shot Tangerine entirely on iPhone 5s fitted out with anamorphic lenses so the images would have a wide-screen look.
The result is grainy but perfectly cinematic. And shooting with iPhones lets the director keep up with his characters as they race from brothel to doughnut shop, have sex with johns while going through a car wash, humiliate unfaithful boyfriends, and support each other when the rest of the world looks askance, which it almost always does. (Like when Sin-Dee drags her biological-woman rival by the hair to a bar where her pal Alexandra has gotten a bartender to let her sing on Christmas Eve, knowing the place will be deserted.)
An unforced, evocative "Toyland, toyland / Sweet little girl and boyland," holds them both rapt, as indeed it should. Because humiliating Chester is just payback. Behind that tinsel-draped microphone, Alexandra is living her dream for a night. And say what you will about Sin-Dee as she shouts, "Yeah, she did that ... clap for her" — it's clear she knows what's important.
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