This conditional access to space is also there in Tangerine, but it is never tested to the breaking point. The conflicts that occur between the characters and the managers of private space – the police, bouncers, motel owners, the employee in Donut Time – never reach a pitch that threatens anyone’s ability to make a living, and so the wheels in these places can keep turning. But in The Florida Project, the conflict is such that it does exceed what the situation can bear. These characters’ inability to navigate Kissimmee’s urban environment points to a more radical situation of unfreedom.
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Cities have always enjoyed an ambivalent place within the modern American imaginary. On the one hand, they have been seen as sites of odyssey into Walt Whitman’s “glorious jam,” a forebidding and thrilling milieu of strangers in which discovery, the pursuit of authenticity, and reinvention are made possible. Cities are places of freedom, away from the networks of gossiping neighbours, the curtain-twitching of the provincial types, and the attitudes of the village green, that are suffered closer to home. The American melting pot, if it is anywhere, is found in its urban kitchens. On the other hand, the modern metropolis is a place where people get lost. Robert Park, an early sociologist of the urban form, described his native Chicago as being like “some great hotel,” where people meet but never know one another, where “fortuitous and casual relationships” end up replacing the more intimate and permanent associations of the smaller community.1 In assessing city life, John Dewey feared that the “frothy excitement of life, or mania for motion, of fretful discontent, of need for artificial stimulation” ultimately expressed “the frantic search for something to fill the void caused by the loosening of the bonds which hold persons together in immediate community of experience.”2 Across the spectrum of these assessments, cities are accepted as risky and uncertain places.
When American artists have charted these risks and uncertainties, it is New York that has taken pride of place. Whether it’s the lonely patrons of the New York diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, the cast of transvestites, prostitutes, and closeted homosexuals in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Joe Buck and Ratso hustling through the winters of Midnight Cowboy, or Travis Bickle charting his way through the “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies” of Taxi Driver, these images and stories are now inseparable from the idea of the great American metropolis. In these examples, Whitman’s “glorious jam” is nowhere to be seen. The city is, at best, an alienating and melancholic stew; at worst, it is hell. In other films, there is a more complicated picture. Spike Lee’s offerings, from Do the Right Thing, through Crooklyn, right up until Summer of Sam and Red Hook Summer, capture more of that ambivalence.
Other examples abound. But in reality, however large New York looms in the American imagination, it is not, and has never been, a city like many other cities in America. Since at least the 1950s, American urbanism has been of a very different order. Enabled by enormous amounts of land, un-unionized labour, and the political and financial capital of the automobile industry, high-density, “walkable” cities have not been an American aspiration for some time.3 Far more common now are the low-density, sprawling conurbations of America’s “sunbelt,” along with other adventures in sprawl such as the so-called “edge city” – a phrase coined by Joel Garreau – that have come to replace traditional downtowns.4 Another important part of this development is the increasing privatisation of public space that now abound – gated communities, Community Interest Developments (CIDs), and other means of privately managing and controlling what is public space in name only.5 Where this newer form of urbanism has been remarked upon within American arts, especially American cinema, it has tended to focus on the experience of the suburbs, the politics of which have not only accompanied but have spearheaded this form of development. The experiences of life within this new urbanism have received less attention.
An exception to this neglect has been the work of Sean Baker. In his films Tangerine (2015) and The Florida Project (2017), Baker has explored this complex American relationship with urban space, but has done it in spaces that are far more typical of the actual trajectory of American urban development than New York.6 In Tangerine, the setting is Hollywood, and thus, perhaps, to some degree more familiar to audiences. In The Florida Project, the setting is much less familiar. Although contained within the city limits of Kissimmee, near Orlando in Florida, the setting is best described as being somewhere on Highway 192, some 10 miles west of Kissimmee proper. In both these films, the physical space of the urban environment is something that is confronted as an aggressor. It is something that characters must conquer if they are to pursue their purposes. Moreover, this conquering has to be accomplished in the absence of cars. In LA, the characters must commit to a day’s worth of walking, a turnstile jump onto the Metro, and two bus rides. In Kissimmee, they get to choose between walking – usually through oceans of parking lot – and hitchhiking.
These similarities notwithstanding, there is also an evolution, a tragic one, that takes place across these two films, specifically as they recount the struggles their respective characters have with the asphalt, concrete, metal, and glass that define their local environments. In Tangerine, the characters are able to navigate urban space in ways that enable both survival and a minimally flourishing associational life. In The Florida Project, these possibilities are shut down. Between the rock of unsympathetic welfare bureaucracies and the hard place of hostile urban environments, there reigns a pervasive unfreedom that ultimately cannot be overcome, except, perhaps, through fantasy.
So, to the films themselves. In Tangerine we join transgender sex workers Sin-Dee Rella, fresh out of prison, and her friend Alexandra, sharing a donut in a Hollywood donut shop.7 Alexandra lets slip that Chester, Sin-Dee’s fiancée and pimp, has been cheating on Sin-Dee with a cisgender woman, whose name begins with D. The rest of Sin-Dee’s story can be broken down into two parts. The first, finding this woman (the D was for Dinah); second, taking her to Chester to have it out with him. This first part is a detective story of sorts in which Sin-Dee – “going hard” – begins to ask people on the block who this woman is, and where she might be. Through chance encounters on the street, it seems that Chester’s involvement with this cisgendered woman is common knowledge, and Sin-Dee quickly finds out that Dinah is at a motel room-cum-brothel. After a cigarette, and the gathering up of enough nerve to do so, she jumps a turnstile and enters the Metro. Busting through the door of the motel room, she effectively kidnaps Dinah and, accessing public transport for the second time, takes her back to Hollywood, and ultimately to the donut shop, where she confronts Chester, who has been there for a while conducting his business.
The role of the street and the blurring of the lines between public and private space are crucial in Tangerine. Whether it is in cars, donut shops, motels, or on the streets themselves, there is enough oxygen in the system for these people to make it through. To be sure, there are certain standards of behaviour that have to be maintained if a person wants to keep sitting in a private establishment, but even these allow for a certain amount of leeway. You can perform sex work in a parked car, but it is best practice not to launch the client onto a police car’s windshield. And if you do wish to fellate a sex worker, entering the privacy of a car wash requires paying an entrance fee, but it gets the job done. All business is conducted in locations where the public and private distinctions are blurred. Chester and his associate Nash conduct their business out of different private establishments, both of which require compliance with the manager’s codes of conduct. There is thus a way to toe the line, to navigate the rules dictated by the owners of private property and the police managing these spaces, to make it through.
But there is more to it than that. In navigating these spaces, in finding the cracks and the pockets of air within which to survive, there is also the possibility of creating rich associational lives. The film is full of chance encounters between Sin-Dee, Alexandra, and a host of other locals, many of whom are also transgender sex workers. These are not “traffic relationships,” a term urban sociologist Ulf Hannerz uses to describe the styles of interaction typical of the city – shallow, fleeting, functional.8 Where for those in more regular forms of employment, who are able to spend more time in the private space of home or the semi-private arenas of work, the street is rarely thought of as a place for creating ties of community, Tangerine shows precisely these more meaningful forms of interaction, which are indisputably a kind of community, is under certain conditions possible in the streets. Alexandra, who leaves Sin-Dee early on to avoid the latter’s “drama,” is singing at a local club, and spends the first half of the film handing out fliers to invite those she meets. Ultimately, it is only Sin-Dee and Dinah who are present to hear Alex sing (it also turns out Alex has had to pay for the privilege to be on stage), but there remains a sense of community, and a culture, however fragile and imperfect, that is able to flourish despite, and indeed because of, a shared precariousness of existence in those margins.
The film’s ending puts this deep associational life to work, reconciling Sin-Dee and Alexandra, after the former has just discovered that the latter has also slept with Chester. They are in a laundromat, where Sin-Dee has had to retreat after being the victim of a hate crime in which urine was thrown at her. They sit waiting for Sin-Dee’s clothes to be washed, Sin-Dee having had to remove her urine-soaked wig. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Alex hands Sin-Dee her own wig. The film ends as Sin-Dee puts her hand into Alex’s.
There is nowhere Sin-Dee and Alex can be unconditionally: laundromats, car washes, parked cars, donut shops, and bars all come with conditions. Indeed, the detective part of the story, where Sin-Dee creates drama in spaces where public-private lines are blurred, works precisely because Sin-Dee leans on those conditions. When she presses Nash for information pertaining to Chester’s whereabouts, she succeeds by threatening his ability to maintain the hazy distinctions between public and private that he needs to make a living. And not everyone manages to successfully navigate these distinctions. When Dinah returns to the motel/brothel for a place to be, she is told the space is full up and she has to leave. Unlike Sin-Dee and Alex, there does not seem to be any social space within which Dinah is knitted, no place where she can belong.
Dinah’s situation at the end of Tangerine, rather than Sin-Dee’s and Alexandra’s, more closely approximates the situation of The Florida Project. In this second film, those precarious spaces and cracks that made life possible in Hollywood are, throughout the course of the film, swallowed up and ground down. It is remarkable to note how often we hear one group of people (usually, those tasked with managing private property) tell another group of people (low-income adults and their children) that they cannot be somewhere, or must behave in a certain way in order to remain somewhere. A topless woman bathing by the pool is told she has to cover up if she wants to stay; children are told they can only stay in the motel’s lobby if they don’t drop ice cream on the floor; even birds that have wandered into the motel’s parking lot are informed they’ve wandered into a place they cannot be.
This conditional access to space is also there in Tangerine, but it is never tested to the breaking point. The conflicts that occur between the characters and the managers of private space – the police, bouncers, motel owners, the employee in Donut Time – never reach a pitch that threatens anyone’s ability to make a living, and so the wheels in these places can keep turning. But in The Florida Project, the conflict is such that it does exceed what the situation can bear. These characters’ inability to navigate Kissimmee’s urban environment points to a more radical situation of unfreedom. In an essay on homelessness, philosopher Jeremy Waldron points to a basic fact of existence: If you cannot be anywhere, then you cannot, at a basic level, be at all. This is as true for a stone as it is for a human being. That is, there are conditions that are so basic to existence, they take priority even over the conditions needed for something as complex as moral agency. In arguing against policies that criminalize the presence of homeless people in public space, Waldron argues that homeless people, understood as people who lacks access to their own private space, “are allowed to be in our society only to the extent that our society is communist.” In other words, “when all else is privately owned, the sidewalks are their salvation.”9 As we have seen in Tangerine, this is not entirely true. But where space is not communist in this way, using it remains subject to the whims of those who own.
Part of this sidewalk-salvation in The Florida Project comes, as we saw in Tangerine, in the fact that some kind of living can be made on those streets. Early on we learn that Hayley, the young, single mother of six-year-old Moonee, has been fired from her job as a stripper (for refusing to perform sex work), and as a result of the termination also been denied her TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Hayley, often with Moonee in tow, must now find a way to make ends meet. She does this in Kissimmee’s versions of the street: Unable to find regular forms of employment, including at a restaurant where her friend Aishley works, Hayley starts to sell perfume, bought at wholesale, in hotel parking lots. However, this survival strategy is shut down when private security guards kick her off the property. The conditional largesse on display in Tangerine is not here in evidence.
Now Hayley and Moonee are not homeless. They can be in their motel room. But they do not have any property rights. At one point in the film, the caretaker of the motel, Bobby Hicks, moves Hayley’s and Moonee’s things to another room. This is done to prevent them from gaining property rights, such that they could only be removed from their room through due process, that is, the serving of court orders, bailiffs, and sheriff-attended eviction. Mother and daughter then go to another motel for the night, only to be told that the cost has gone up, and then being refused a right to stay, even when Bobby makes up the shortfall of ten dollars. They end up crashing in the room of Jancey – Moonee’s friend – and her grandmother. They manage, in other words, to find a place to be, at least for one night. The following morning, they return to their “own” room. But we the audience should now be fully aware that is it theirs only in a limited sense, from which they can be excluded with very little effort.
Her perfume entrepreneurialism shut down, Hayley now resorts to sex work. Putting Moonee in the only other part of their private space that is not a bedroom – the bathroom – Hayley gets visits from men who have found her advertising her services online. When one of the clients returns and begins to cause trouble, Bobby instructs Hayley that any and all guests will now have to register and leave their IDs in the motel lobby, effectively cutting off this last means of income. Access to space sufficient to meet her most basic needs has dwindled to nothing, forced to the vanishing point by those who own or, more accurately, by those whose incomes are tied up with acting on behalf of those who own.
This is where Film Comment’s Cassie da Costa, in one of the very few negative reviews The Florida Project received, misses the point. She criticizes Baker for a “crude rendering” of his marginalized subjects, “because while he can imagine their daily realities he cannot fully fathom their inner lives.” Moonee and Hayley’s “unruly energy is presented as an end in itself, as if it is enough to know that they exist and are trying to survive, but not what that survival means to them or what they hope for themselves outside of it.” Da Costa argues that even in the fast and fleeting world these two inhabit, “teeming with unprocessed emotions . . . people do emerge as themselves, one way or another.”10 The least da Costa could do is recognize the profound damage done when people, especially people with children, have to navigate these insecure environments, with minimal economic opportunity, and zero assistance. To say that people emerge as themselves, says no more than that they survive. Less, that they do not die. It is common knowledge that America tends to set its standards low when it comes to the treatment of its poor and working-poor, but the logic of this misguided appeal to authenticity has (had) appalling political and personal consequences. However, she is also, it seems to me, wrong about the absence of the inner part. And it is precisely in Hayley’s assertions regarding her ability and her right to be in various places where she expresses a deep and defiant courage. Hayley is desperately alone in this film, her one real friendship ends abruptly, after Hayley and her friends inadvertently burn down some abandoned condos, which leads Ashley to cut off Scooty, her son, from Moonee. This casts Hayley adrift, removing any and all of the associational nourishment and support she needs, and we all need, to survive. There is one scene, after this break up, when Hayley and Moonee go to the restaurant where Ashley works. They go, and are allowed to remain, only as paying customers. They stay there all day and leave with an enormous amount of bagged up food. However, in the parking lot, Hayley loses her temper, and hurls the bags into the asphalt. Hayley’s “unruly energy” is expressed here as precisely an acknowledgement that her act of defiance amounts to nothing, and has served only to deepen the gulf between her and a former friend.
Hayley and Moonee’s story was never likely to have a happy ending. Hayley, in particular, is too busy trying to find a – literal – place to stand. Where Tangerine ended in reconciliation and a show of strength founded in friendship, The Florida Project ends on a very different note. Moonee, who has just realized she is about to be separated from her mother, escapes from the officers who have been sent from the Florida Department of Children and Families to place her in foster care. She rushes over to Jancey’s room and, as Moonee begins crying, knowing she will likely never see Jancey again, Jancey grabs her by the hand and they’re off. At this moment, Baker switches, both to an IPhone 6, and to pure fantasy.11 The film’s last scene – shot clandestinely by Baker and a skeleton crew of around ten people – sees them running through around ten miles of what, to a child, would be some of central Florida’s most lethal urban sprawl, before entering the ultimate in private kingdoms, Disney Theme Park, the other Florida project of the film’s title.
There is a bitter irony in this ending. Throughout the film, Moonee and her mother have been told where they cannot be, or what they must or must not do, in order to find a space in which they can be. Now, when the film opts for fantasy as a way of resolving this story, it is the fantasy of an escape into a world that is also privately governed, that is also a space where conditions of entry are high and where the rules on behaviour are limiting and strict. A freer form of urbanism, one in which poor people’s existence goes on absent surveillance, and policing is not even an aspiration. Where Sin-Dee and Alexandra hold one another’s hands as a way of holding firm against a hostile world, Jancey’s grabbing of Moonee’s hand is one where there is no reality to support that or any other relationship.
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All images are screenshots from the films discussed.
- Park, Robert. Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1952. 47. [↩]
- Dewey, John. The Public and Its Problem. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1954. 214. [↩]
- Beauregard, Robert A. When America Became Suburban. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Ch. 3. [↩]
- Garreau, Joel. Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. New York: Doubleday, 1991). [↩]
- Low, Setha. Behind the Gates. London: Routledge, 2003; Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. London: Verso, 224. [↩]
- Although Baker, in an earlier, 2004 film, Take Out, has also made a film in New York City. [↩]
- The shop was Donut Time, which has now closed down. [↩]
- Hannerz, Ulf. Exploring the City. New York: University of Columbia Press, 1980. 105. [↩]
- Waldron, Jeremy. “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom,” UCLA Law Review 39/295, 1991. 301. [↩]
- Cassie Da Costa, Review: The Florida Project. September-October 2017. Available at: https://www.filmcomment.com/article/review-the-florida-project/ (accessed 07/09/2020). [↩]
- Incidentally an upgrade from the IPhone 5 used to shoot the whole of Tangerine. [↩]