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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In Jackson Heights

The last of the three films from the list of the 25 best movies of the century published by The New York Times that I hadn't seen was In Jackson Heights. This actually dovetailed with wanting to see this film because its director, Frederick Wiseman, won an honorary Oscar last year. I actually had the DVD from Netflix but accidentally sent it back, so I got it back again.

Wiseman is well thought of in documentary circles, but I had never seen one of his films. He usually follows the same template--find some kind of institution: a prison, an mental asylum, a school, a ballet company, and simply document it with a camera. There are no voiceovers, no interviews, no one talks to the camera. It's fly on the wall filmmaking.

His latest project was to take on a community, Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. According to someone in the film, Jackson Heights is the most diverse neighborhood in the world, with 167 languages spoken. I wouldn't have even though there were 167 languages spoken in the whole world.

Wiseman moves from topic to topic, with just a few overarching threads of narrative. One is the increasing gentrification of the area, with small business owners forced out by raised rents, and stores like the Gap and Home Depot coming in. During one sequence, an activist explains how this happens, and it's mostly due to taxes. Another is the prominence of the LBGT community, which flourishes in Jackson Heights. It's where the Queen Pride Parade takes place, and we sit on meetings with support groups for elderly gay people and transgenders. At the end of the film, Bill DeBlasio is the first mayor to take part in the parade.

There are of course a lot of immigrants in the neighborhood, and much of the film is in other languages. A meeting of immigrants allows a woman to tell a harrowing story of how her daughter crossed from Mexico and spent 15 days lost in the desert.

While some of this is very interesting, the movie is over three hours long. I watched it in two pieces, and there are so many committee meetings that you get the idea that everyone in the neighborhood is an activist. That may be a skewed view--after all, if you're only seeing meetings, you're not seeing people who don't attend them. I was amused by a small group of ladies sitting in a restaurant knitting, talking about the state of a small cemetery. The talk swerves to old movie starts and how many of them were gay. "All the actors I liked were gay," a woman says. "I wonder what that says about me."

What I liked most were some of the transitions, especially those that go inside businesses. We visit an Indian salon (I finally realized what "threading" is), a dog grooming shop, and a poultry processing business where birds have their throats slit, are tossed in boiling water, defeathered, and then cut up in the most brutal way you can imagine.

I also loved the scenes of people just going about their business--walking down the street, sitting in a park, window shopping, or dancing at a club. The colors of the fruit and vegetable stands are vibrant, and sometimes you can smell the food cooking.

There are certain areas not viewed. We do see the city councilman in a meeting, but there are no other shots of politicians, nor schools. The film seems to be skewed toward the elderly, like a 98-year-old woman who complains that she has no one to talk to, or the LGBT community, who may have been more cooperative to get their stories told.

In Jackson Heights is sporadically interesting, but I felt a little like some of the parishioners in a scene in church--a few of them had their eyes closed.

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