Pilar Timpane

Pilar Timpane is a freelance writer, documentary filmmaker, and photographer. She has worked on independent documentaries and film series including most recently Lamento Con Alas: Documenting Unidentified Deaths Along the Texas-Mexico Border (2014). She is also contributor to the book, Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank about Faith (White Cloud Press, Oct 2013). Pilar holds a B.A. from Rutgers University and a Masters Degree from Duke University Divinity School. More of her work appears at . She resides in Durham, North Carolina.

Breakthrough Cinema via iPhone

As 2015 wrapped up, along came the lists of “Best Movies” and “Must-see TV.” There is so much at our disposal as viewers today, and it can be easy to miss the artistic gems in the media and entertainment bombardment. Recently, I cruised Netflix to try and catch up and stumbled upon an independent film I had heard some recent buzz about on public radio.

Directed by Sean Baker and starring newcomers Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee) and Mya Taylor (Alexandra), the film is Tangerine (2015). It follows a young transgender prostitute in Hollywood who has recently come back to the block after a stint in jail. The setting is Christmas Eve: Sin-Dee and her best friend Alex are on a quest to hunt down a woman her boyfriend/pimp slept with while she was in prison and force him to confess the wrongdoing.

With a premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and a distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine has found some fame, and brought its unlikely subjects with it. Internationally reviewed as one of the best films of 2015, many were disappointed when it recently was snubbed at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.

Tangerine is a low-budget film, but the low-budget look is also part of the film’s experimental appeal: it was entirely shot on an iPhone 5s. Special lenses and editing software were used (FiLMiC Pro video app), but the clarity, beauty, and consistency of the frames would not immediately suggest, even to a trained eye, that what we are seeing is the product of a smartphone. Many indie filmmakers have used iPhones to create films, but Tangerine is being touted as the first iPhone-only film to receive this sort of critical success.

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 10.43.07 AM

The characters in this film present an original take on trans life through a portrayal of normalcy and self-accepted female contextualization of their subjects. Sin-Dee and Alex are compelling and beautiful and raunchy; they love each other, and they give and take the way any two best girlfriends might. The story is filled with hilarious plot turns that make the viewer wonder what was scripted and what was ad-libbed. They cruise up and down the Hollywood streets, meeting up with other trans women, perhaps also prostitutes, all adding to what must have been an enormous, seemingly bystander, cast.

Eventually, Sin-Dee finds the culprit, a thin blonde woman named Dinah (played by Mickey O’Hagan), and is about to rush to accuse her beloved of his crime, when she realizes she has almost missed Alexandra’s performance at a bar downtown. She pulls Dinah to the bar, and forces her to sit at a table with her so they can support Alex on stage. No one else has come to the event. Afterwards, she’s notably disappointed, and Sin-Dee tries to cheer her up:

“You did good, girl,” says Sin-Dee.

“Tell her she did good,” Sin-Dee says to Dinah.

“Honestly, it sounded a little old…what I’m coming from is that I know a lot of people in the music industry… I myself sing…The cool thing is you played in a club, you had people paying you…,” Dinah chimes.

“Shhh…she didn’t get paid, girl…She paid to sing, girl,” says Sin-Dee, trying to quiet her captive.

“I can hear you,” says Alex, flipping her hair indignantly.

In a world only beginning to make roads into acceptance of trans actors and their stories, Tangerine’s approach to its own story assumes that those roads have long been paved. Sin-dee’s drama—part Austenian comedy, part explicit sex worker documentary—is hinged on the typically regarded “female” desires of its main characters. The accessibility of the characters’ feelings, relatability of their desires, and identifiable experiences provides surprising and sympathetic payoffs. Something that other films about the same subjects have missed, perhaps through using non-trans people to play their parts, is the essential humanness that Tangerine seems to effortlessly assign to its characters through the story of Sin-Dee and her day-long hunt on Christmas for the girl who stole her man. Despite the darkness of some of the moments, the cheer and momentum of the film allow the viewer to relate to situations and people to whom they may never before have been exposed.

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 10.43.21 AM

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Mya Taylor (Alexandra) has said, “Straight from the jump I said this has to be real. Totally honest. No fabrication. And very funny.” Her realness and clear co-direction of the film provide greater insight to viewers unfamiliar with current trans issues. 

With shows like Transparent and films like The Danish Girl coming into public view, and trans celebrities like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox making the news this year, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a film like Tangerine accomplishes what it does. Perhaps a door has finally opened for such stories to be told without explanation or self-pity for the trans community. The clear boldness of this unapologetic trans perspective is balanced and reflected in the use of the iPhone cinematography, which adds both the grit of the street-walking characters and the trueness of the verite composition of the film.

Tangerine defies the typical and problematic ways the trans community has been portrayed. Its story isn’t about the destruction of a trans person or their “alt” lifestyle; Tangerine, at its base, is a comedy about a relatable friendship between two people who also happen to be transvestite sex workers. And the grittiness of the film doesn’t make it assume a quality of B-movie proportions; rather, the grittiness makes every scene feel as real as the characters.  Knowing that it was an iPhone all along—a device many of us have on us now—is part of what makes this film so familiar, and yet spectacular, in its achievements.

Kings of Nowhere

The documentary film Kings of Nowhere (Los Reyes del Pueblo que No Existe, 2015) , directed by Mexican filmmaker Betzabé Garcia, opens eerily on a lazy-eyed man driving a small motorboat, making a slow course over silvery waters. The camera stays on him for almost a minute, before abruptly shifting its focus just beyond the man to the tops of graves and chipped stone obelisks rising out of the gray water. A submerged cemetery juts out of the water, a watery grave.

Slowly, along with the landscape surfacing above the murky water, a story emerges in long takes, wide angles, and still frames. As the pictures move, a world is captured passing through the shot, letting the impression of the camera disappear into the stillness of the frame. This stillness stands in stark contrast to the well-known “shaky cam” documentary style: a follow-and-zoom camera movement that accompanies a character haphazardly and makes the presence of the camera almost visible to viewers.

The Mexican town of San Marcos has been inundated with water after a government dam was put up several years earlier without really consulting the people. Only three of the original three hundred families remain, but they are die-hard locals. They’re not going anywhere. Still making tortillas on the cranking steel machine, still deboning chicken for dinner even when the lights go out from a storm. They are not leaving their locality, their residence, their home.

501704199_1280x720

This quiet and beautiful film won the top prize at the 2015 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary. In its 18th year and held in the growing downtown of Durham, N.C., Full Frame attracts documentary industry from all over the country and the world. Having attended the festival on various occasions over the past three years, I’ve noticed a marked turn towards the quieter form in documentary that captures content through a “show-don’t-tell” style.

The observational style, in a sense, is a return to a principled verité style of documentary, where filmmakers, such as documentary pioneers the Maysles brothers in Salesman (1968), let the camera roll on subjects without a lot of questions or direction. For the Maysles and other “direct cinema” documentarians, the pure motive of observation rather than manipulative direction means the camera runs while life happens in front of it; thus, the goal is to capture truth. The result for the viewer is awe and reflection, a shift towards the sublime.

al:david:paul.002

Kings of Nowhere is an excellent example of this current cinematic return. The reclaiming of the verité style results in simplicity, humor, beauty, sadness; an honoring of the range of experiences possible in humanity. It’s a range that seems to capture the sense of sublimity in the small lives of people living on in the flooded Mexican town.

Character development occurs through observation rather than explanation. Each character the viewer encounters is unnamed through the typical titling we see in the lower third of the frame; rather, the subjects tell their story without explanation. The realistic and peaceful soundscape serves as a score rather than soaring emotional music. We are dropped directly into the moment, where the din of insects and silence surrounds us as much as it does the characters in the film. Like the Maysles, Garcia and her cinematographer Diego Tenorio were very careful to allow the truth (verité) to happen before them and, standing in awe, they translate the story through slower pacing and editing.

We see a couple who cleans the local church and weeds the plaza in town, even though donkeys and dogs come and go as they please and the water overruns their work every rainy season. An albino woman whose husband seems to have dementia rocks on her porch while telling stories of the town before the flood. Animals have become stranded in different parts of the town because the water rose before they could be brought back from pasture, and a man brings dried tortillas for a marooned horse to chew on. And another small man in a Stetson style hat rides his horse through the village. His wife laughs through her broken front teeth about how he courted her, and they dance on the porch in a hot, dark night.

Dark clues of the surrounding Central American gangs and death squads run through the stories the townspeople of San Marcos tell. Unnamed “dangerous” people who shoot and attack them enter and exit conversation without explanation – and the viewer is left to form some idea of armed gangs of robbers and marauders. Even these stories are told with such Latin humor and fantasy; the Stetson sporting man chuckles while explaining how he narrowly escaped an ambush.

These Kings of Nowhere are all characters without names, but whose lives leap out from the screen through the verité camera. A whole picture is presented without comment, and the audience puts the pieces together. Nothing remarkable happens, yet everything happens. A camera in awe does less to guide us than it does to present us with truth. It’s utterly realistic and, in being so, is utterly fantastic.

The Voyeur’s Gaze

Everyone is a voyeur. The ability to see, record, and upload happens at record speeds, almost at the speed of thought – we are in the contemporary era, the Internet age. Seeing and communicating happen almost simultaneously. And because we are voyeurs, we see many worlds from just beyond the screen, slightly disconnected from characters, places, and ideas, even as we engage with them for hours of our lives.

A screen divides us from being engaged and connected with whatever art or life or streaming event is happening on the other side of fiber optic cables. When films self-reflect on themselves as voyeuristic, revealing the camera, using a camera as a character, or crossing lines between documentary and fiction, they begin to call us out on our own voyeurism and beg us to ask the question: is this all okay? What is dehumanizing about our constant, disengaged gaze? What does a voyeuristic culture do to its citizens as interpreters?

Two recent films exemplify this strange drama unfolding in the visual/digital age: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of the sci-fi drama by Michael Faber starring Scarlett Johannson as (spoiler alert) an alien who roams Scotland looking for men to consume; and Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an ambulance-chasing videographer who sells raunchy video of suburban crime and car crashes to local news stations. Both pieces, not surprisingly, belong to a reemerging era of indie art film that is slowly making its way into the mainstream theater (other examples in the 2000’s may include Pina, Tree of Life, Holy Motors, and others). This genre, at its core, was born from an effort by filmmakers to approach socially taboo questions of sex, gender, death, and power through the surreal. In the case of these two films, I’d like to look at how they center on the perspective of “alien” vision of a foreign world, and how that may be a metaphorical parallel to our voyeurism in the digital age.

Under-the-Skin-17

Under the Skin has been called one of the best movies of 2014. While uncontestably surreal, it is a confusing, scary, and downright creepy look at the possibility of an unnamed alien life taking on human form (Johannsen), and using that female form to consume human bodies. In the film, Johannsen’s character seduces men into her car and then takes them back to her lair where a black pool engulfs them and ultimately takes their lives. In an infamous scene, one of the recently submerged men sees another who has apparently been under the aqueous black for some time. They reach out to hold on to each other, but the smooth and rubbery body suddenly pops and becomes nothing but the loose skin shell of a person, floating on the horrific deep.

The film shows this same story over and over: Johannsen in a van, cruising the streets and asking random men if they need a ride and eventually if they find her beautiful. If so, they end up back at her decrepit house, and ultimately nude, following her down into the eternal dark. This story, however, was far from scripted. The filmmaker, John Glazer, used hidden cameras in the van to capture Johannsen – decked out in strange street clothes and a black wig – talking to pedestrians, not actors, and asking them if they’d get into her car. Several of the other scenes are filmed in a similar way, with a small crew and in public places. They had to request release forms afterwards, a protocol usually used in documentary production or for content on news outlets. This unorthodox filmmaking perspective creates an authentic feeling of sexuality and fear in these moments when Johannsen is apparently picking up men who may become her character’s meal. Not only this, but several of these men (actors were often used) are shown in full frontal nudity, never quite reaching the object of their desire who lures them to their death and watches as they disappear into their death. The voyeurism involved here is very much about sex, and is related directly to the questions: will they get in the car? Will they go back to a house with a total stranger? And after you’ve learned about the film technique of hidden camera documentary: do they know that she is famous?

Film Review Under the Skin

Another take on voyeurism is shown through Johannsen’s character. As an alien, she stands just outside of all of these interactions, using a body as a vehicle rather than actually being able to sense the fear or sexual tension produced by her pickup lines and brazenness. She sees what we see, but can’t interpret it as a human being would. Even the introductory sequence, which features a surrealist set of shapes and colors finally exploding into light and slowing fading into the clear image of an eyeball (an image that hearkens back to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist film L’Age D’Or), reminds us that Johansen’s character is watching us. She isn’t there to be watched, to have the male gaze consume her, but rather to consume it.

Then there is the L.A. thriller, Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhall’s character Louis Bloom is one for the books. Brilliantly scripted and cast, watching Gyllenhaal play Bloom is like taking too many stimulants and staying up all night: it is overwhelming, exhausting, energizing, frightening.

Bloom begins the film as a thief, stealing scrap metal and selling it to industrial waste yards for cheap. He steals bikes and sells them to pawn shops. He lives alone and does not seem to have any friends. In the meantime, he cruises the internet learning about everything he can, especially business, and repeats his savvy at every chance he can get, requesting jobs from everyone, even people to whom he is selling stolen wares. With his slick shades and internet obsession, he is, perhaps, a millennial. However, most normal people can see through Bloom’s scheme and opportunistic, hyperactive, faux-MBA speech. “I’m not going to hire a thief,” says the junkyard owner to Bloom’s propositions.

nightcrawler-jake-gyllenhaal-2

One night he encounters a freeway crash and sees ambulances rushing to the aid of a dying person in the car. He gets out not to help, but to watch. Suddenly a van rushes up behind him and out pop two cameramen, lights blazing, filming as closely as they can the carnage and perhaps death of the person in the car. Bloom approaches the cameraman (Bill Paxton) who tells him he is a freelance TV-News cameraman who will sell this 60-second tape to the local news station. Bloom takes one look at the thousands of dollars worth of equipment in the van and quickly inquires whether he is hiring. The cameraman says no, and being informed by a police scanner attached to his dashboard of another awful event unfolding, whizzes away from the scene.

Within weeks of this encounter, we see Bloom has become his own version of a sleazy nightcrawler, operating a small camcorder and listening to a police scanner, he begins to film awful scenes of shootings in the suburbs, sneaking onto crime scenes, and pouncing on car crashes. He finds an advocate in news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a local station. Romina is similarly desperate, struggling for ratings, and a vampire for bloody events that make people watch her show. Ultimately he begins to provide her with his work full time. He thinks of himself as a businessman and hires a sidekick to navigate (Riz Ahmed). Ultimately, the sociopathic Bloom begins to stage events that he can film, and causes mass terror in the process.

Nightcrawler exposes the dangers of voyeurism outright. There is no question that Bloom’s trashy video of awful events (which Romina feeds by saying, “The story is urban crime seeps into the suburbs,” and requesting footage of whites being vandalized, murdered, etc.) is morally and ethically disturbing. Throughout the film, characters arise to question Bloom and Romina’s motives. However, Romina is working within a system that requires she bring up ratings, and the only way for her to do that is to count on Bloom’s emotionless videos of the maimed, shot, and robbed upper class. Despite the calls of other producers at the station, Romina continues to push for the dark and disgusting to be on the news each and every moment possible. She operates on the principle that the viewing public will only watch when they are afraid, and so she keeps them afraid and is herself afraid of losing Bloom. Bloom, on the other hand, is not afraid at all. None of the moral questionability of what he is doing ever occurs to him. He is making money and does not care who lives or dies because, after all, look at his work ethic! In a sense, he represents the same kind of non-human voyeur that Johansen’s alien character does in Under the Skin. Neither Bloom nor the alien care about the lives they destroy; both take what they see without question. So, in a way, Bloom isn’t explicitly taking people’s lives. Rather, Bloom’s weapon is a camera and he is taking human life through the exploitation of the image.

Night-crawler

Nightcrawler Writer/Director Dan Gilroy uses an interesting device to show the potential evil of the camera. Throughout each bloody scene where Bloom arrives at the beck and call of the police scanner, the viewer sees these gruesome images primarily through the LCD screen of Bloom’s camcorder. We are often watching a screen on a screen – also true of the moments when Romina is directing the newscast. She is in the editing room calling shots, which we watch on a nearby screen becoming the live news feed. In many ways, Nightcrawler is a filmic success primarily because of its ability to expose voyeurism through an act of voyeurism: a viewer seated to watch a film, a film that offers a view into the world of creating entertainment for society. Bloom is evil, but so are we. The viewing public is who makes this kind of gory television ubiquitous, keeping the Blooms of the world in business.

In both Nightcrawler and Under the Skin, we have detached and, in the case of Johannsen’s character, truly non-human sight. Both Bloom and the alien character consume the world through a lens which is neither forgiving nor able to love. The human sight which a viewer brings to these films causes us to feel unsettled to the point of terror, becoming the voyeurs ourselves and sympathizing with these anti-heroes. But, for these characters to exist, a human must have created them. Therefore, we feel that this potentially cold and ravenous gaze could exist in each of us.

To be disengaged with the image is to live without interpretation. The desensitization of these kinds of characters acts as a warning to all viewers that we’re all potentially complicit in this type of voyeurism if left unchecked. And that is the scariest part of all.