Saturday, October 31, 2015

Frederick Wiseman's documentary IN JACKSON HEIGHTS opens at New York City's Film Forum

My cousin Paula Carroll, a relatively wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world woman, used to say (and undoubtedly still does) that if you know a particular subject well and then see a movie about it, you'll find that movie wanting. TrustMovies has more often than not discovered for himself that this is true. Depth, specificity and honesty are not necessarily synonymous with mainstream entertainment. Having lived in Jackson Heights for 22 years and only recently relocated to southern Florida, I know my ex-community relatively well and so was looking forward to the Frederick Wiseman (the filmmaker is shown above) documentary, IN JACKSON HEIGHTS, about as much as I've awaited the coming of any movie I can recall. I've been impressed with other of this documentarian's works -- from Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968) onwards to Crazy Horse (2011) -- and now, here he is tackling my own stomping ground!

Yeah, right. I should have lessened my expectations and recalled what cousin Paula said. Also, I should have noticed that the title of this film is not Jackson Heights (as though it were going to be any kind of definitive picture or history) but In Jackson Heights, as instead, "This is what's happening in the neighborhood right now." As such, Wiseman's movie is a not uninteresting look at a place that, like the borough of Queens of which it is a part, offers as ployglot a community as you're likely to find anywhere in the world (167 languages are said to be spoken here!).

Inclusive is also a term you can use about this place which is and has been for some time open and relatively welcoming of the GLBT community (some of its seniors are shown above), of new immigrants (legal and otherwise), and of the various cultures these immigrant represent (the number and variety of ethnic restaurants alone are legion). All this is catnip to Wiseman's eye and camera, and so we get a cursory look at food and restaurants and culture and mariachi bands (below).

What really interests the filmmaker, however, are certain groups -- from those in a senior center, to the GLBT population, to young social activists trying to help a beleaguered Hispanic business community survive an attack by wealthy real estate investors, to a support group for recent U.S. immigrants, a member of which (below) tells the tale of her daughter's very frightening and near-death experience getting into the country.

Also covered in some depth and detail is the office of Danny Dromm, New York City Council member for the 25th district, which includes Jackson Heights. We watch and listen as his staff handles various phone calls, and later watch and listen again as Dromm and staff tackle a thorny education question. (The movie certainly works as an endorsement of Councilman Dromm.) The funniest moments probably arrive as the camera and microphone capture a class for new taxi drivers (below) who need to learn about Brooklyn! This is clever, unusual stuff, and their teacher seems like a born New Yorker (that is to say, himself a somewhat Sammy Glick-like immigrant striver).

My spouse stopped watching the film after two hours (it runs a total of three hours and ten minutes). He found it too repetitive and not very eye-opening. I watched that final hour and was glad  I did, even though I, too, did not find myself surprised or educated by much I saw.) I suspect that none of the critics who are currently praising the film to the skies live in Jackson Heights, or they would be aware of all that is going on here. And more. The movie barely cuts into the community, save for these few "group" experiences that we see.

Wiseman is a filmmaker who prefers to show rather than tell (some of his subjects do plenty of that, however). So he does not use narration or go into history.  He simply points his camera -- savvily, it must be said -- and records. What he has captured In Jackson Heights is a community undergoing change, as communities always do. Earlier, Hispanics pushed out an older population of Irish and Italians; now they are being pushed out by gentrification and wealth. There was a time when Jews were not allowed to purchase in the Jackson Heights Historic District -- a beautiful, landmarked area within Jackson Heights that this movie barely shows or mentions -- but you wouldn't learn anything like that from watching this vibrant, colorful but somewhat shallow film. There is a limit to what simply pointing the camera and shooting can do, and when one goes into a community this diverse, there is a price to be paid in the kind of depth achieved.

The movie, from Zipporah Films (Wiseman's own distribution company) opens this coming Wednesday, November 4, in its world theatrical premiere in New York City at Film Forum. In the weeks to come, it will make its way around the country and elsewhere. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

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