In Jackson Heights
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Opens November 4 at Film Forum
What is a community, and how does it work? With In Jackson Heights, Frederick Wiseman poses these and other questions, and while he’s not a documentarian who sets up an issue and then explains it (and then gives you a website), he does suggest a point of view. And in this vibrant string of vignettes from this diverse, multicultural, and colorful neighborhood, Wiseman affirms that politics is part of everyday life. That’s the case whether we make it so or not, and for the small-business, labor, and LGBTQ groups that are most prominent in the film, battling away at gentrification and intolerance, political action is as vital as breathing.
Wiseman’s cinematic visit opens with a panoramic look at a Jackson Heights corner nexus that encompasses subway, stores, people, streets. For the rest of the movie, we circulate—mostly through its stores, organizations, and political meetings, but also stopping by an elderly home, a recording studio, an eyebrow-threader, a taxi-driver training class, a gay club, and a halal butcher. There’s something quintessentially New York about this urban portrait: busy, practically wise, full of difference—dense, but without rapid editing or bustling crowds to tell us to think that. Wiseman, as ever, has great faith in words as action, letting us listen to an unemployed cleaner eloquently expound on losing his job, or turning two constituency support hotlines into a duet of patient one-sided conversations.
This is a film where a 98-year-old delivers maybe the best lines, stuff you couldn’t make up: Musing on losing mobility and sight, she wonders “What else have I got that’s gone?” In Jackson Heights gets at that range and depth of human experience, and Wiseman seems to show special concern (without ever showing himself, of course) for the neighborhood’s natural diversity: The film first zeroes in on its Muslim and gay citizens, those who for so much of the rest of America are apparently the opposite of what it means to be American. This is New York as the vanguard of the country’s ongoing democratic, pluralistic experiment—whether it’s grassroots participants speaking their mind, a knitting circle, or a council member leading a parade, in Daniel Dromm (with a glimpse of de Blasio too).
Fundamentally, rights and identity require upkeep in the real world, Wiseman seems to say, with his behind-the-scenes looks at worker support and queer groups, or at meetings about combating the rent hikes that are purging the Roosevelt Mall of longtime tenants in favor of chains. In subtle ways this sense of the body politic is interwoven with that of actual physical bodies: Lingering shots at beauty parlors underline how superficial the differences are that separate people, while post-soccer-game police crowd-control and stories of homophobic violence show how inseparable politics and the body really are. And in a single scene of a woman asking a church group on the street to pray for her father, Wiseman finds an impromptu vision of transcendent love.
That’s the beauty of Wiseman films, their ideas hidden in plain sight. It all can look like the most ordinary thing in the world, without people telling you what to watch or what’s important, and meanwhile you’ve ended up seeing precisely the most important things in the world.