All of creation converges in In Jackson Heights, a thrilling, transporting love letter from Frederick Wiseman to New York and its multi-everything glory. Set in the Queens neighborhood of its title — where people from across the globe are staking a claim on America while speaking Spanish, Tibetan and Punjabi — Mr. Wiseman’s latest documentary is a movingly principled, political look at a dynamic neighborhood in which older waves of pioneers make room for new, amid creeping gentrification. It’s an immigration story, so it goes without saying that it is also about New York and the United States — that “teeming nation of nations,” to steal a phrase from Walt Whitman.
Times Square is often called the crossroads of the world, but Mr. Wiseman suggests that that title more rightly belongs to Jackson Heights. The neighborhood, a blocky parcel formerly known as Trains Meadows and about 30 minutes by subway from Midtown Manhattan, was created in the early 20th century as a suburblike development. The area’s modern history is inscribed in the elevated train (the line opened in 1917) that runs along Roosevelt Avenue, its southernmost border, and which is glimpsed and heard throughout the movie. Other chapters of that history can be seen in the garden apartment houses that were built in the 1910s and ’20s, in the garden homes built after 1924 and in the gaudy storefront signs that today ornament the main commercial strips.
That history is there for the reading, but Mr. Wiseman isn’t a pedagogue and doesn’t wield a hammer, much less a wagging finger. Like anthropologists (or some poets), he studies other people and their behaviors, finding meanings in the visible world. Put another way, he immerses himself in a world — call it his fieldwork — observes it closely and brings back the evidence. Crucially, to expand on this ethnographic comparison, he also edits his documentaries, in addition to doing the sound work. “Cutting a documentary,” he said in the 1970s, “is like putting together a reality dream, because the events in it are all true, except really they have no meaning except insofar as you impose a form on them, and that form is imposed in large measure, of course, in the editing.”
And because Mr. Wiseman doesn’t use voice-overs or talking-head interviews or, just as important, impose an obvious narrative arc on his material, or channel it through a solitary heroic figure (the “relatable” human portal), he expects you to do your interpretive share. To that end, he offers people, patterns, informative signposts and, in this documentary, actual street signs, including 37 AV and 77 ST, and 82 ST and ROOSEVELT AV. He bookends In Jackson Heights with parallel extreme long shots of the urban landscape, opening with an overhead shot of a daytime street tableau and closing at night with a jewel-like city aglow with bursts of fireworks. In between these paired images he writes an epic of a city, its people and the democratic process in tentative and kinetic action.
Mr. Wiseman plunges you into Jackson Heights like a no-nonsense tour guide, dropping you into the ’hood and immersing you in sights and sounds with a succession of harmoniously framed shots of people, corners, flags (a Brazilian banner ornaments one shot, while the Stars and Stripes waves in another) stores and bins of brightly colored vegetables. Working with his longtime cinematographer, John Davey, Mr. Wiseman also pops into a Muslim school, a Jewish center, a meeting of gay and transgender people, a City Council office and the local headquarters of Make the Road New York, an activist organization dedicated to Latino and working-class people. Every so often, he pauses a while as someone delivers a song, an argument, a speech, a complaint or a tribute — what great talkers he finds!
Mr. Wiseman’s subject is, famously, institutions, or, as he put it in another 1970s interview, “a series of activities that take place in a limited geographical area with a more or less consistent group of people being involved.” Those institutions can seem as direct and familiar as the halls and teachers in High School (1968); other times, as in Central Park (1989), the idea of the institution emerges in the nexus of children’s playgrounds, city policies and the public commons. Similarly, while In Jackson Heights is an exploration of a particular neighborhood, Mr. Wiseman advances the idea that what makes a city — and makes it great — are the people in its streets and stores, its barbershops and laundromats, who together are weaving its cultural, social and political fabric.
Over time, as the movie returns to specific spaces, touching on human rights and gentrification along the way, it develops into a deeply stirring ode to the immigrant experience and American identity. Each person and storefront sign carries a story, opens another world, from “Articulos Católicos” to “Himalayan Driving School” and “Whole Baby Goat.” (Animal lovers should be aware that a bird is slaughtered in one scene.) Mostly, these stories mingle peacefully, despite worried brows and references to past violence, as with a shot of the street sign for Edgar Garzon Corner, named for a gay man who was beaten to death in 2001 — an image that Mr. Wiseman answers with images from a pride march. By the time fireworks are soaring, your heart is, too.
In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Whitman wrote that the genius of America is found in its “common people” rather than in its executives or ambassadors, colleges or churches. He found an “unrhymed poetry” in “their manners speech dress friendship — the freshness and candor of their physiognomy — the picturesque looseness of their carriage … their deathless attachment to freedom — their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean — the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states.” Whitman’s words are a glorious, rhapsodic catalog of everyday Americans, as well as a poem in their own right, one that for the last half-century Mr. Wiseman, in documentary after documentary and in his own generous fashion, has been expanding on beautifully.
Director: Frederick Wiseman.
A Zipporah Films release. Running time: 184 minutes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Shores.