For me, summer in New York can turn into a kind of affectless hellscape. I sit, sweat, roll over, repeat. Days haze into gray and smudge into one another at the edges. My thoughts become scattered. How fun it’s been then, in the past two weeks, to be donkey-punched by two movies about train wrecks: different, loud, technicolor, and totally relevant.
Maybe fun’s not the right word: nutritious? Healthful? The feeling after you’ve taken a just too-long run or lifted a just too-heavy weight: satisfied, light-headed, dizzy, angry, confused all at once.
Amy is the heartbreaking story of the rise (and rapid fall) of British jazz-soul singer Amy Winehouse, whose music I’m listening to while writing this. She dropped her first album at 19 in 2003, became an international smash with 2007’s Back to Black, and fell down a rabbit hole of heroin and crack and whiskey that led, with intermittent fits and starts of recovery, to her death at 27 in 2011. Directed by Asif Kapadia, the film makes a convincing case – as if her voice, genuinely weird and historically situated, didn’t – that she was a major artist.
Tangerine, a new Sundance hit directed and shot on iPhones by Sean Baker, concerns two trans women sex workers of color, their pimp, an Armenian cab driver and his family, and a new ‘fish’ (what the trans women in this particular socioeconomic nexus call a woman who was assigned female at birth). Like the films of Pedro Almodòvar, this is a cinema of women: the women exercise agency, move the plot along, demand and insist the impossible from their lives and achieve at least the continued life of their own fantasies, which is no small thing in their world. There are definite questions of positionality that popped up in my head as I watched; ones which have been assuaged somewhat by the involvement of the film’s two stars, Mya Taylor and Kitana Rodriguez, pictured above, in the film’s conception and creation. How delicious it was to hear Taylor and Baker interviewed on Terry Gross; when Gross sadly and predictably asked Baker all the meaty questions, Taylor started interrupting to answer, taking her place at the table.
What unites these films is the unique energy of their stars, an energy that sends out sympathetic vibrations that affect the form of each piece. It’s a nervous, buzzing energy, the energy of Madame Rose in “Gypsy” or Candela in “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” Energy that expresses a manic talent and inner life that the world makes these women repress or at least punishes them for possessing. The high art of the staccato rhythms of Taylor and Rodriguez’ speech, Winehouse’s perfectly-slumped phrases; these artistic achievements, reflected in each film, live at the intersection of womanhood, self-presentation, and choice. Typical martyrdom narratives are gendered such that men are heroic martyrs and women are just train wrecks. These films give life to the artistry, heroism, and lived art of their subjects. See them.