Features and Columns · Movies

‘Tangerine,’ Realism, and the Double Logic of Digital Cinema

Does digital cinema mean green screens and fully-CGI characters? Or realistic shaky-cam and more accessible filmmaking? (The answer is yes, and yes).
Tangerine digital cinema
Magnolia Pictures
By  · Published on November 10th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay on Sean Baker’s ‘Tangerine’ and the contradictory presence of digital cinema, both as an avenue for the fantastical and the realistic.

Film’s relationship with digital technology is … complicated. And for those among us whose hearts flutter at the idea of changeover cues and film grain, the gut reaction is generally on the negative side. Digital technology overwhelmingly dominates the way that modern films are made and consumed. And there is a knee-jerk fear that digital technology is not necessarily changing the medium for the better.

The proliferation of inconspicuous digital tweaks challenges film’s relationship with material reality. Until digital technologies became ubiquitous, you could generally trust that what you were seeing on the screen actually happened in some form or another. There’s an argument to be made that some modern live-action films have more in common with animation than photography.

But this isn’t the entire story. Indeed, as the video essay below keenly underlines, digital filmmaking’s relationship with “reality” goes both ways. If you look at digital’s relationship to cinema from a different perspective, you can appreciate the ways that digital technologies were able to capture a new and previously uncharted iteration of cinematic realism.

Digital cameras were capable of capturing longer takes, allowing scenes to unfurl in real-time without the unavoidable imposition of editing. Smaller and less expensive cameras also allowed a new generation of filmmakers to tell previously underrepresented stories, capturing on-location settings that have since been swallowed up by gentrification.

Shot on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Tangerine serves as proof that digital filmmaking does not always mean anti-realism. The film tells the story of Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), a trans sex worker attempting to get to the bottom of whether or not her boyfriend cheated on her while she was in prison. And it is an invaluable example within a broader, more diplomatic conversation about what digital technology brings to cinema.

Watch “The Other Side of Digital Cinema: Tangerine and Digital Realism”:

Who made this?

This video essay about digital cinema and Tangerine is by Jordan Schonig, who holds a Ph.D. in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago. They are a Film Studies lecturer and make video essays on, what else, film. You can subscribe to Schonig on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.