Teeming with life, the expansive, generous-spirited new Frederick Wiseman documentary “In Jackson Heights” opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Wiseman’s 40th film, it continues his obsession with the institutions, the juices and the peculiarities of American life and the democratic process. It’s a very good thing to experience around the Thanksgiving holidays; some of us give thanks to Wiseman with each new project the 85-year-old master brings to fruition.
Jackson Heights sits not far yet a world away from Manhattan. Formerly known as Trains Meadow, the neighborhood is a multiethnic mosaic of a Queens, N.Y., landmark where, as one resident says, 167 languages fill the air.
True to Wiseman’s form, “In Jackson Heights” contains no on-screen identification of camera subjects, no voice-over narration and little in the way of overt polemics. By the end, you arrive at the essential paradox found in every Wiseman portrait: a clear sense of just how cloudy our world and our environments have become.
Wiseman and his cinematographer-collaborator John Davey nose around houses of worship, from mosque to cathedral. They survey a concert held in a laundromat and the step-by-step activities of a poultry slaughterhouse. They observe a sunburned and fast-asleep young couple at an outdoor concert.
The film gravitates to the Jackson Heights offices of Make the Road New York, a community center aiding the working immigrant sub-communities. Many here are living on the edge of serious trouble; jobs are being lost. If there’s a through-line to the film, it’s the cause and effect of an imminent mass eviction at the local mall. Each new informal gathering of two, three or more residents serves as an example of ad hoc political science. “There’s something here. … I’m not exactly sure what it is … but I keep coming back,” says one man attending a community center meeting for gay seniors. That’s urban life, the appeal and the glue of it, in a single observation.
Often the people on screen speak before crowds or among friends, in various languages, and struggle to find the right phrasing. Wiseman’s film allows everyone their say, so that “In Jackson Heights” becomes one of the truest images of gentrification and its costs on film. At the end, we see fireworks in the distance, at night — an image of American celebration and unity. Yet we’ve just heard the stories told by residents who lack steady employment (and green cards, in some cases), housing, a future. Wiseman never points to a single mood or affirmation in any of his explorations. He sees the whole of this place, and shares it.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“In Jackson Heights” – 3.5 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 3:08
Opens: Friday through Dec. 3 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; www.siskelfilmcenter.org
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