Be Your Own Self: The Lessons Of 'Do I Sound Gay?' And 'Tangerine'

Jul 10, 2015
Originally published on July 10, 2015 8:22 pm

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.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Some movie titles tell you exactly what the movie's going to be about. Others don't. The new documentary, "Do I Sound Gay?" falls into the first category. The comedy "Tangerine," which has nothing to do with citrus, falls into the latter. Our critic Bob Mondello caught both.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Do I sound gay? 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO I SOUND GAY?")

DAVID THORPE: (Clearing throat).

MONDELLO: ...And reading the opening credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO I SOUND GAY?")

THORPE: Impact Partners presents aloud a ThinkThorpe, Little Punk production, a film by David Thorpe.

MONDELLO: Then he poses the title question to folks in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO I SOUND GAY?")

THORPE: Do I sound gay?

MONDELLO: And they tell him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO I SOUND GAY?")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, I think you do sound gay. Not as much as I do, but...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, in Francais, no. In English, I don't know (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yes.

MONDELLO: Having established that people think he does sound gay, he then sets out not just to change the way he sounds, but to understand why he wants to change it - a quest that takes him to academics, voice coaches, psychologists, and columnist and gay activist, Dan Savage.

DAN SAVAGE: A lot of gay men are self-conscious about sounding gay because we were persecuted for that when we were young. When you're young and closeted and trying to pass, you police yourself for evidence that might betray you.

MONDELLO: 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 - in Disney villains, say.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PETER PAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Capt. Hook) Peter Pan will be blasted out of Neverland.

MONDELLO: There was this is "Peter Pan," and it kind of got carried across to "The Jungle Book."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JUNGLE BOOK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Shere Khan) I thought perhaps you were entertaining someone up there in your coils.

MONDELLO: Not to mention Jafar in "Aladdin."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALADDIN")

JONATHAN FREEMAN: (As Jafar) Perhaps I can divine a solution to this thorny problem.

MONDELLO: Scar in "The Lion King."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LION KING")

JEREMY IRONS: (As Scar) Oh, I shall practice my curtsy.

MONDELLO: And the list goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: If you think of very, very young children, you know, they could be growing up with the idea that real evil or villainy can be connoted by a gay man's voice.

MONDELLO: Thorpe doesn't stop there. He 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 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 Rella, the transgender LA prostitute who is going to be her own self, no matter what anyone thinks, in this micro-budget dramedy. How micro-budget is it? We'll come back to that. But first, meet Sin-Dee on her first day back on the street after a month in the slammer as she greets her trans friend, Alexandra, in their favorite doughnut shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

KITANA KIKI RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Merry Christmas eve, [expletive].

MONDELLO: She plunks down a celebratory doughnut with extra sprinkles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

MYA TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Are we supposed to share it?

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Yes, we're supposed to share it. I'm broke. (Laughter).

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) How have you been?

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) The estrogen has been kicking in. My body looks good.

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) Oh, honey.

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) So I got some good news to tell you.

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) What?

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) I've been keeping a secret about me and Chester.

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) I know what it is. You're breaking up with him? Thank God - because honey, if he going to be cheating on you like that...

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Wait - whoa, whoa, whoa. What?

MONDELLO: Cat out of bag, and the film's barely a minute old. When Sin-Dee discovers that her rival is a biological woman, she goes uncharacteristically silent for a moment and then smiles to herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra) What are you plotting?

MONDELLO: And they're off. Director Sean Baker offers up a largely plot-less but seriously busy Christmas Eve on the fringes of LA's sex industry. A bargain-basement tour in many ways, but also an innovative one. Baker shot "Tangerine" entirely on iPhone 5's fitted-out with anamorphic lenses so the images would have a widescreen 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. Sin-Dee, for instance, dragging her biological woman rival by the hair to a nearly-empty bar where her pal, Alexandra, has gotten a bartender to let her sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

TAYLOR: (As Alexandra, singing).

MONDELLO: 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, she knows what's important.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Yeah.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TANGERINE")

RODRIGUEZ: (As Sin-Dee) Clap. Clap for her. Yeah, girl, that's right. She did that. Yes, she did that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.