Visiting Professor delivers thought-provoking lecture on “Cities and Cinema”

Barbara Mennel, a professor at the University of Florida, screened the 2015 film “Tangerine” on Thursday, May 18, in the Warch Campus Center Cinema. Afterward, she gave a talk concerning the relationship between urban spaces and the cinema and how “Tangerine” is an important addition to that discussion. Mennel is the Rothman Chair and Director of the Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere at UF and holds joint appointment in the German and Film Studies departments. She hails from Germany and has published several books including “Cities and Cinema” from which this lecture draws its argument. 

Her lecture was titled “Intimacy and Immediacy: iPhone Aesthetics in Tangerine (2015).” She began with a history of North American cinema, focusing on its history of race. She pointed to “Birth of a Nation” as being one of the seminal films that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. It is still studied today not as a monument to racism, but for its place in the history of filmmaking and how it rethinks narrative in film. She moved onto the integrated Hollywood of the 1950s and 60s, examining films like “West Side Story” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” which strived to make race relations and themes of gang violence palatable to a white audience. In the 1970s there came what Mennel called the LA Rebellion, where a group of radical black filmmakers strove to poetically and realistically portray the black experience in urban America with films like “Killer of Sheep.” Jumping ahead a few decades, Mennel discussed the 1990s, where films like “Boyz n the Hood” and “Menace II Society” cemented the “ghetto” genre, which would soon go global with films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “City of God.” She also briefly touched on 21st century variations on this genre like “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting” before turning to a quick rundown of the history of Queer Cinema. She touched on the openly gay films of the Weimar era in Germany, the homosocial American melodramas of the 1950s and then the sometimes homophobic, sometimes liberating films of the 1980s like “Cruising” and the “Torch Song Trilogy.” The 90s brought with it the New Queer Cinema films that were the first to include explicit intersections of race and sexuality, like “Looking for Langston” and “Paris is Burning.” This brought us to “Tangerine,” a film that follows two black trans women, Sin-Dee and Alexandra, as they journey through Los Angeles looking for Sin-Dee’s boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. The film takes place on Christmas Eve, the first day of Sin-Dee’s release. The film was directed by Sean Baker and was shot using modified iPhones which cheaply create cinematic widescreen compositions and provide the film with some of its more intimate moments between the characters. All of this is centered around a constant movement; Sin-Dee is always on the move and the camera behaves accordingly. We are provided with a view of LA not normally shown in films, but that members of the audience who were familiar with LA said felt very authentic. The film does not show stereotypical LA glamour, but rather the harsh realities of the most marginalized sections of society. The film has created a new way for cinema to engage with urban spaces, Mennel argued, and does so by doing right by the authenticities of race and sexuality that permeate the conversation about marginalization today.