For nearly 50 years, Frederick Wiseman has been making fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentaries that immerse viewers in the goings-on inside institutions and other established human entities. His subjects have included a psychiatric hospital, a zoo, and, most recently, UC Berkeley and Britain’s National Gallery.
“In Jackson Heights,” which explores that diverse Queens, New York City, neighborhood, is his latest such cinematic expedition.
Those whose nonfiction-cinema consciousness postdates Michael Moore will likely think Wiseman’s methods come from a galaxy far, far away. Eschewing talking heads, narration and titles, Wiseman lets the audience determine what is transpiring. At the same time, via, largely, his editing process, he brings a solid point of view to the picture.
Immigrant stories, LGBT experiences, and little-guy struggles dominate the film, which takes us into many of Jackson Heights’ distinct communities.
As usual, Wiseman includes numerous scenes of constructive interaction — community meetings, support groups, casual conversations, pride events. You don’t need to be a New Yorker to relate to the issues involved.
At a meeting for immigrants, a Mexican woman details her daughter’s harrowing border-crossing experience.
At a gathering of small-business owners, topics include exorbitant rents and a rash of eviction notices.
A Latino businessman angrily notes that his community has been abandoned by its elected representatives.
Transgender women relate incidences of police harassment.
At the offices of councilman Daniel Dromm, workers field constituents’ phone calls, sometimes rolling the eyes. Should an Altmanesque dramatic film ever be adapted from this movie, Dromm, an openly gay LGBT-rights advocate who pops several times in the film, would emerge as a primary character.
At a community center, a 98-year-old woman complains about loneliness. Another attendee advises her to pay people for companionship.
At a birthday celebration for a neighborhood notable, a leather-clad woman delivers a singing telegram. It’s the sort of wonderfully off-the-wall moment that happens in this kind of cinema.
Wiseman also visits houses of worship, a tattoo parlor, a pet-grooming clinic, a cabdriver class, beauty salons, a launderette, and a poultry slaughterhouse that could turn anyone into an animal-right activist.
Between these streams of activity, he inserts vivid breathing-space dividers — scenes of storefronts, street performers, and the elevated subway train that serves the Jackson Heights area.
The film ends with a bang, in the form of an affirmative burst of fireworks.
It all adds up to a vibrant mosaic of cultures and humanity from an 85-year-old filmmaker with the skill of a master and the curiosity of a child.
Don’t be dissuaded by the 190-minute running time. Only on rare occasion do you wish Wiseman had reached for the scissors. The comprehensiveness and intelligence of his material give it tension and sweep.
In Jackson Heights
Three and a half stars
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes