IN JACKSON HEIGHTS: Frederick Wiseman’s Latest Masterpiece

By definition documentaries sound like a pretty straightforward genre; but the evolution of the genre over the years is anything but simple. While I don’t want to sound combative towards the artistic growth of any art form documentaries have splintered into so many different directions, we’re running out of terms for all of the varied sub genres. For every Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, or Errol Morris there seems to be only one Frederick Wiseman which is why his work always feels like a breath of fresh air.

Over forty-nine years, In Jackson Heights is his forty-fourth directorial credit, and his Herculean output over the years hasn’t veered from his purely observational approach. You won’t see or hear any talking heads, interviews, narration, staged footage, or title cards, without the slightest whiff of subjectivity.

At times his no frills approach to directing can seem off-putting, and the many institutions he’s surveyed over the years (Hospital, Juvenile Court, High School) might seem cold, but that’s the result of his meticulous practice. In Jackson Heights indicates a growing a sense of scope for Wiseman, a broader canvas to work with, a pattern with more of his recent work,  National Gallery, At Berkley  that’s resulted in more observational depth and longer runtimes.  Maintaining his consistent and elegant aesthetic, Wiseman’s latest effort In Jackson Heights is an immersive, and warm examination, and a thoroughly satisfying experience.

The Subject Makes The Documentary

Frederick Wiseman is a prolific director, and his method of direction comes from an anthropological sense than artistic, that’s not to say the two are exclusive; because his true artistry comes in the form of his editing which is exemplary in designing a narrative construct with the footage he captures.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS: Frederick Wiseman's Latest Masterpiece
source: Zipporah Films

In Jackson Heights falls in line with Wiseman’s modus operandi; this neighborhood is a multi-ethnic, cultural epicenter, a nerve center where you can hear over a hundred different languages spoken, a bustling embodiment of the American endeavor. When we think about the “American Experience”, our default sensibilities think of Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, New York City as a whole but history is too specific to be so broad. And Wiseman, a superlatively keen observer of the human seed (his fifty years of studious filmmaking evidence of that) sets his sights on one of the ethnically, culturally diverse neighborhoods in Queens.

From the outset, it’s hard to discuss the work of Frederick Wiseman without resorting to woolly philosophizing, or existential pontifications, but that’s the cultivated flavor of his work, and with each evolving title the more refined and affecting it becomes. In Jackson Heights can be seen as many things, a documentary, a travelogue, but this softly ambitious visual essay is engrossing for a simple reason. The subject speaks for itself, In Jackson Heights is great because of Jackson Heights.

In some respects, In Jackson Heights is a sprawling travelogue, easing into the environment is easy because that’s what Wiseman does best. Our introduction transports us from the passing of the No. 7 train in the morning; people are going about their daily routines, conversing, crossing the street; this feels like one of the busiest places in the world, but no one is in a hurry. The intervals or scenes hold for as long as they need to, the first half hour lays out the foundation for the following film ahead of us by introducing us to the various cultural, political and ethnic pit stops that will be our recurring subjects.

A Muslim prayer group indicates the breadth of diversity ahead – most memorably council member Daniel Dromm makes an inspiring speech, kicking off the annual Queens Pride Parade. He airs his admiration for the Jackson Heights neighborhood, the myriad diversity and the welcoming of the LBGT community in the Queens area. Dromm’s reverence is a stimulating soundboard for the colorful and vibrant vistas on the horizon.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS: Frederick Wiseman's Latest Masterpiece
source: Zipporah Films

To say that Jackson Heights is alive might seem like a flowery assessment, but the rhythmic ambiance of the city becomes our soundtrack, and the multiple encounters with actual musicians ranging from experimental percussionists performing in a laundromat, mariachi street performers, to string driven quartet playing in a club. We can sense that Wiseman isn’t solely concerned with who or what’s on stage but the audience as well, their reactions become just as intriguing.

Jackson Heights – A World Of Its Own

The Latino community has a paramount role in the film, which chronicles the support groups that assist people in getting citizenship, and aid those who have suffered in their journey crossing into America. One woman’s harrowing story is distressing but disarmingly inspiring considering the perseverance of her journey, the frank sincerity of their dialogue is a testament to the director’s unimposing style.

The Queens Pride Parade is featured, and the gay/LBGT population are highlighted through the parade as well as moments where SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) members convene, transgender support groups, protesters marching to boycott a restaurant that refused service a transgender woman.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS: Frederick Wiseman's Latest Masterpiece
source: Zipporah Films

Wiseman’s camera doesn’t sidestep the less favorable side of the human seed. Police intervene when zealous soccer fans take to the streets after a game, ambulances tear through celebration, cop watch volunteers tailing officers, and all along the way gentrification looms over the heads of Latino business owners. But that’s life as it occurs, and this is a record of a time and a place, good and bad.

Leaving Jackson Heights

Bookended by overhead shots of the No. 7 train, we go out at night, with the Fourth of July firework booming overhead, not a bad note to end on. In Jackson Heights is an affirmation of America, and our countries collective humanist endeavor, with an unenforced warmth and humanism. Frederick Wiseman is the most consistently impressive director working in the medium, his growing scope and ambition have culminated into panoramic explorations of towns, universities, and in this, most expansive turn with In Jackson Heights.

What is your favorite Wiseman film?

In Jackson Heights is available on DVD and Blu-Ray via Zipporah Films.

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