In Jackson Heights
Frederick Wiseman sits like the proverbial fly upon the wall. He shoots, cuts, records sound, produces and directs. In Jackson Heights marks Wiseman’s 44th documentary in a career that takes in everything from Titicut Follies (1967) to Hospital (1970) to Crazy Horse (2011) and National Gallery (2014) and just about everything in between.
Jackson Heights is a neighborhood in Queens, one of five boroughs that make up New York City. The film informs the viewer that more than 167 languages are spoken in this culturally diverse community that originally was a pre-planned neighborhood, around the end of World War I, as an upper-middle-class residential area. That was then, this is now.
In Jackson Heights literally moves from one block to the next just like you live there. Jackson Heights has a population of over 100,000 and there is plenty of joy as well as grief to spread around. Wiseman starts out with a magnificent establishing shot from a high angle that he mirrors with an equally stunning closing shot that takes in the elevated railway against the New York skyline as fireworks go off in a Fourth of July celebration. What lies in between are up close shots of everything from religious litanies in mosques to affirmative action meetings where issues like gentrification are discussed.
You become immersed in Jackson Heights as Wiseman thrusts us from one building to another. Sometimes we witness cab drivers being taught how to navigate the city, and other times we observe a slaughterhouse where ducks are killed, plucked and preserved. And yet other times during the lengthy movie we merely watch as groups of people celebrate their lifestyle. One sewing circle gabfest reveals that Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero were lovers. Another town hall meeting determines where members of a gay lesbian support group can safely meet.
Wiseman’s slow and steady approach to his subject allows the audience to literally smell the grime of the streets. But to also feel the dedication of the denizens of this neighborhood to its ultimate progress.
In Jackson Heights plays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Friday, January 15 (7 pm.) with two more screenings on the 24 and 31.
— Michael Bergeron