In Jackson Heights
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Legendary documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman (At Berkeley, National Gallery) explores the culture, politics and daily life of the Queens, NYC district of Jackson Heights, which lays claim to being the most diverse neighbourhood in the world.
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★★★½ review by Eliecer Gaspar on Letterboxd
I make a cameo at approximately 1 hour and 52 minutes.
★★★½ review by Mike D'Angelo on Letterboxd
A.V. Club review. Eye-opening even for me, though I lived in New York for 17 years. None of my neighborhoods (East Village, Bushwick, Park Slope) were this vibrantly multicultural, and Wiseman chronicles the diversity without editorializing, avoiding the heavier editing touch that somewhat marred At Berkeley. He still has a tendency to get heavily invested in people/scenes I don't find all that interesting—here, I confess to growing antsy during a couple of very lengthy personal anecdotes told at what I gather is some sort of community center for undocumented immigrants, in the same way that I might tune out watching raw footage of, say, an AA meeting. (Don't mean to equate immigrants with addicts; it's the narrating-my-struggle aspect, which always feels to me like someone reading a book report synopsis written in the first person.) And I still question whether most of his recent films really need to be quite so long...though, at the same time, I'd be (unknowingly) sorry had he cut the beleaguered young woman at Councilman Dromm's office who spends several minutes deflecting an irate caller ("That would actually be a violation of federal law, ma'am," she says wearily at one point), or the group of people preparing for their citizenship exam who get whitesplained (sorry) their reasons for wanting to be Americans. And I'd happily watch an entire feature about the dude who instructs prospective cabbies. If only actual New York cabbies were that entertaining.
★★★★½ review by Justine Smith on Letterboxd
"Like most of Wiseman’s work, the central character is not an individual, but the crowd. I can’t help wondering if Wiseman — removed from the propaganda of Soviet Russia — has truly achieved the cinema that Eisenstein wrote about. With his rigorous editing process and democratizing, observing eye, Wiseman allows the community itself to become the central character. A shot featuring a crowd of Colombians watching TV in a storefront (their images reflecting onto the game) highlight the film’s optimism as the image feels resoundingly celebratory. In Jackson Heights portrays the struggles of small business owners in the face of gentrification and corporate strangleholds, so the image — rather than taking on cynical notes — becomes about coming together. It reflects the intimacy of the co-relationship between the disappearing middle-class business owners and the communities they serve. The imposing threat of gentrification is painted as wrought with corruption and a far cry from the idealized portrait of capitalism as an agent for good and liberation. In 5-10 years, it seems impossible that the community will survive on its current path, as it will be swallowed whole by the insatiable appetite of corporate giants."
Read my full review at Vague Visages: vaguevisages.com/2015/11/16/ridm-2015-frederick-wisemans-in-jackson-heights-and-the-virtues-of-eisenstein/
★★★★★ review by Sean Gilman on Letterboxd
Today I learned: Jackson Heights is in Queens, not Brooklyn as I wrote multiple times last week.
"That's a gross misunderstanding of federal law."
Most of our buildings are built on graves, but we don't remember.
"One is left wondering what the reality of this country is."
★★★★★ review by Carlos Valladares on Letterboxd
The greatest film of this year has been released, and it’s going upsettingly unseen. That film is Frederick Wiseman’s 3-hour documentary epic, In Jackson Heights. It is a dazzling, immersive, daring, much-needed look at the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, NYC: the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the world (167 languages are spoken there) and a microcosm for America itself. It is perhaps the most accurate representation of our homogenized times, and the most beautifully American American movie since Robert Altman’s Nashville came out in 1975. This should be required viewing for every American citizen who wants to learn more about the stark reality of our pressing times.
With In Jackson Heights, Wiseman positions himself in the space of all those magnificent fresco painters (Giotto), world-immersing writers (Faulkner), and mosaic moviemakers (Altman, Jacques Tati) that came before him. Like those artists, Wiseman wishes to represent every and all perspectives that his artist’s eye will allow. The multitudinous everythingness of his humming Jackson Heights neighborhood gives the impression of the world in one small, obscure pocket of the world, existing underneath the surface without bothering anyone. Wiseman collapses space and time in remarkably poetic ways. Nagging background noises of cars and trucks passing by on the street start to take on an oceanic quality, like waves of watery sound washing in and out of the urban sprawl of New York. LGBT flags reflect a rainbow spectrum of colors that extends to the peacock colors of the neighborhood. Gold (a Colombian soccer fan’s jersey), murky grey (a Muslim’s turban), washed-out crimson (the aforementioned Korean flower shop), and hot-pink (Councilman Danny Dromm’s boa during the Gay Pride Parade where he loudly belts out Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly!”)—these are the hues of our world, taken for granted every day we walk down the street, but made relevant and alive again through Wiseman’s stimulated camera.
The spirit of documentary filmmaking rests with Wiseman. With In Jackson Heights, he has revitalized a type of filmmaking often in danger of degrading into clichéd talking heads, moody shots, and somber narration. Not only has he made one of the best films of this year, he has made a crucial social document of our times. Jackson Heights is us.
For more on what makes In Jackson Heights a masterpiece of modern cinema, check out my longer piece for the Stanford Arts Review.
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