' Cinema Romantico: In Jackson Heights

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

In Jackson Heights

Not long into Frederick Wiseman’s multi-faceted, tirelessly-comprehensive documentary “In Jackson Heights” we see a group of gay senior citizens meeting to discuss moving their community center from the titular neighborhood situated in Queens, New York to another locale. One man proffers an understated if impassioned soliloquy about how welcoming Jackson Heights has been to its LGBT populace for so long, and as he speaks, you can’t help but notice but another man a couple chairs over, hanging on every word, and then raising his hand, like he wants to be called on in class, to speak next. We never hear from him, unfortunately, because the camera cuts to another moment. Yet it’s telling of the innumerable faces that Wiseman captures on camera, whether they speak or not, or are just glimpsed, and how they all have a story to tell. And even if “In Jackson Heights” is a little long and occasionally repetitive at three hours and ten minutes, you’re simultaneously left with the feeling of wanting more, to wander in this neighborhood forever. And while Wiseman eventually hones in on the idea of gentrification being Jackson Heights’ inevitable doom, his film never feels like a funeral; or, if it does, it feels like a New Orleans funeral. This is an eloquent, moving, beautiful, joyous celebration of a place, its way of life and those who make it so. It’s one of the best films of the year.


There are no talking heads, no voiceover stabilizers and no sequences in which the lay of the land is laid out in precise fashion. Instead it’s as if we’ve just hopped off the “7” train in a place we’ve never been with no guidebook except our eyes and ears. Wiseman favors a camera that feels like a friendly interloper, wandering in and out of places, listening and observing, routinely catching people in motion and activities in progress, cycling through so many shots of people and places, of lives being lived, of produce being sold, of music being played for free, of prayer being ministered to strangers, and the sound of the train, always the train, rattling, rumbling on, indifferent to the lightning of a thunderstorm and the noise of police protests, carrying people where they need to go. Ah, but that omnipresent train is also a harbinger, perhaps of doom, seeing as how it rides straight into Manhattan, the place where everyone needs to get even if they need to live some place more affordable.

It’s not simply the environmental atmosphere that Wiseman observes, because while the neighborhood is rightfully loud and proud of its heritage, of being a place where 127 languages are spoken, of the way it opened its arms to so many people of different creeds and lifestyles when others wouldn’t, “In Jackson Heights” acutely captures a neighborhood in transition, in looming danger of being Brooklyn-ized, of having its unique cultural multiplicity squashed by the standard-issue “gringos” priced out of Williamsburg and Long Island City.

At times “In Jackson Heights” suggests non-fiction John Sayles, the camera simply settling down and listening to people talk civics. At one point we receive a five minute, at least, everyday elucidation of gentrification. It’s notable for both its candidness and seeming inevitability; the guy doesn’t really offer any suggestions about what can be done because it’s being done. A guy listening suggests they contact their local politicians. People are adamant about going to meetings. But no one sounds optimistic. It’s tempting to quote Walt Whitman but I kept thinking of Terence Mann: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.


“In Jackson Heights” isn’t Sayles, however, because Wiseman is not a true dramatist. Yes, he often uses the form to edit seemingly disparate sequences to foster specific ideas, like going directly from a study meeting for a US Citizenship test in which the instructor cites her students offering the “vote” as their answer for why they want to come to America to a scene of locals in danger of having their small business run off by Home Depot being told that voting is their most crucial weapon. There are also meetings regarding treatment by police, and midway through Wiseman records local Colombians watching their country win a World Cup match before taking to the streets to celebrate where we see a moderately heavy police presence and certain revelers being carted away. But adhering to the doc’s tendency not to get involved, the camera feels more like someone watching while leaning against a wall, taking it in, filing away. It passes no judgment; it’s just a fact of life.

And life is what Wiseman is going for, which sounds maddeningly jejune, but which comes through with an impassioned pulse. More than anyone else Wiseman documents, I keep thinking of the 98 year old woman who confesses that she was happy until her husband died. Now she has no one left, days just passing by, and though she’s still got plenty of money, she doesn’t really even know what she’d do with it. What does it matter? Not that much in the long run, I suppose, since this is where we’ll all end up in one form or another anyway. That sounds bleak, yes, yet I did not feel sadness watching her, not exactly. Another woman asks for the secret to her longevity and the 98 year old replies, “If I find out what it is, I’ll tell you.” Of course, Wiseman seems to know that there is no secret, that there are merely moments of serene reflection and occasional transcendence situated between all the policy and debate and unyielding mundane tasks that consume us. I thought of Jackson Browne: “Nothing survives but the way we live our lives.”

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