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Sean Baker, the last of the authentic American ‘indies’ | Culture

by News Room
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An iPhone is on display at the Academy Museum in Hollywood. One of the old ones, quite humble, not very flashy. It is one of the three phones that Sean Baker (Summit, New Jersey, 53 years old) filmed with in 2014 Tangerineconfirmation that the filmmaker is capable of shooting films with whatever he has at hand, always focused on very human characters, who struggle to stay afloat financially, and who are close to his heart, as he said in the promotion of The Florida Project in the EL PAÍS editorial office: “I am not interested in telling stories about people who do not love in some way, even if they are unpleasant.” Last night, his career was catapulted with a fair Palme d’Or in Cannes for his new feature, Anora, in which he once again talks about prostitutes “in the hope of eliminating the stigma that surrounds them,” he said in his presentation in Cannes.

Baker has long been a fixture at festivals focused on independent film. The Florida Project (2017) seemed like the film destined to open the doors, after the media noise achieved in the Cannes Filmmakers’ Fortnight, including the Oscars. However, he only managed one nomination, for best supporting actor for the only professional in the cast, Willem Dafoe. Which did not discourage him, and he continued defending his desire to tell stories of those who do not seem to exist in his country: “In the United States there is a huge class division and people do not know or ignore the homeless. It is unfair, because it is very easy to fall into poverty, in parallel economies such as drugs or paid sex. And with a billionaire as president (at that time, Donald Trump led the United States). Wealth is celebrated, the homeless are hidden…”

Sean Baker, with a black cap, on the set of ‘The Florida Project’.

Baker does not come from that social class. The son of a patent attorney and a teacher, since he was little he dedicated himself to making home movies after watching a series of Universal monster classics with his mother at the Summit municipal library. He studied film at New York University and editing at The New School (he edits all of his films) and quickly launched into filming. His first full-length, Four Letter Words (2000), revolved around the language and concerns of American youth. Four years later, she co-directed Take Out, in which a Chinese immigrant was forced to pay his debts in one day. In Prince of Broadway (2008), the protagonist was an immigrant from Ghana, wandering the streets of Manhattan, who discovers that he is a father. Thus he began his journey through the shadows of the American dream. Since he had a legal dispute over the title with Take Out, Both were released commercially in 2008 and both were candidates for the Independent Spirit, the film awards. indie.

In between, he achieved some commercial success with the series Greg The Bunnie, with what he could finance Starlet (2012), the strange friendship between a 21-year-old girl and an 85-year-old woman in California’s San Fernando Valley. And finally, with the fifth length of it, Tangerine (2015), confirmed his fame. The protagonist of it is a trans prostitute who during Christmas Eve walks the bitterest streets of Hollywood looking for her boyfriend and her pimp, who she has found out is cheating on her. “We use three cell phones. We discarded one because the optics did not provide the same quality as the other two. And one, yes, is in the museum, which is wonderful, but I have kept the other one for myself,” she assured.

The last sequence of The Florida Project (2017) It was also filmed with an iPhone. “We made a virtue of necessity, and only later, in montage, did I understand the tribute,” he said in EL PAÍS, about the end of his crude portrait of the poverty that surrounds the Disney World park in Florida, of the children who live in the colorful motels—decadent remains of a magnificent pop past—, sinkholes from which marginalized people, drug addicts and people who make a living selling counterfeit perfumes appear, but where human kindness flourishes.

George Lucas presents the Palme d'Or to Sean Baker on Saturday night.
George Lucas presents the Palme d’Or to Sean Baker on Saturday night.Clodagh Kilcoyne (REUTERS)

Con Red Rocket (2021) already competed in Cannes, while Baker was already known for rejecting commercial commissions (although he has shot quite a few promotional videos for fashion brands). The film was a hilarious parable about the return of a porn actor—played by a real one, Simon Rex—to his hometown in Texas with no money or plans for the future. “Porn movies are full of guys who are true survivors, who live in a state of feverish euphoria. In any case, I was interested. I defend that great stories can also star, for example, a trans woman who makes a living as a prostitute, because we live in a capitalist society that is happy to celebrate success,” he said at its premiere, in a story that could be read as the illustration of the arrival of Trump, based on flattering lies, to the White House. “The comparison between some politicians and porn actors is pertinent. That egomania, that self-adulation born in both cases of living in very closed competitive worlds in which only praise is heard, although one only survives in them by destroying rivals…”.

Anora It is, again, a different look at prostitution. It’s the twist of Pretty Woman, a cocktail of Howards Hawks and Hal Ashby, through a stripper who also works as a prostitute and who ends up involved with the immature and somewhat naive son of a Russian oligarch. “In Starlet I became friends with many of them and realized that there were a million stories from that world. If there is an intention with all my films, it is to tell human stories, and hopefully universal ones,” he explained at the press conference to present the comedy in Cannes.

“It is helping to eliminate the stigma that has always been applied to that livelihood.” The filmmaker believes that “sex work should be decriminalized and not regulated in any way, because it is the body of a sex worker and it is up to them to decide how they will use it in their livelihood.” Written for Mikey Madison (from the series Better Things), in Anora There was no intimacy coordinator on the set, because the actress felt that after a year of work there was enough trust with the director, “and because everything we did imitated what Sean and Samantha had previously taught us in rehearsals (Quan, producer and wife of Baker).

Sean Baker and Mikey Madison, at the presentation of 'Anora' before the press on Wednesday the 22nd in Cannes.
Sean Baker and Mikey Madison, at the presentation of ‘Anora’ before the press on Wednesday the 22nd in Cannes.Sarah Meyssonnier (REUTERS)

With the Palme d’Or in hand, Baker staunchly defended movie theaters on Saturday night: “Unfortunately, you see that every day there are theaters that close. I follow an account from X about that phenomenon. I grew up going to the movies, that’s where I want my movies to be shown. And yes, it’s scary, but instead I see a growing film culture in New York, Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco of young people who want to go see movies on the big screen. It won’t be for him.

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