On Wiseman’s Heights

In Jackson Heights

a film directed by Frederick Wiseman
Thirty-seventh Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens; from Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film In Jackson Heights
Zipporah Films
Thirty-seventh Avenue, Jackson Heights, Queens; from Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film In Jackson Heights

Toward the end of In Jackson Heights, Frederick Wiseman’s wonderfully dreamlike new film—a seeming celebration of a neighborhood in Queens that its city councilman calls “the most diverse community in the whole world”—we see two Cuban grandmothers singing, with great joy and abandon, “Yo Vendo Unos Ojos Negros.”

I sell a pair of black eyes
Who wants to buy them from me?
I sell them for being bewitching
Because they paid me badly.

One woman is toothless, both women wear baseball caps, and as they sing verse after verse—about sorrow, fading flowers, lost love—their voices grow stronger, their gestures more exuberant. The scene shifts and the women continue to sing as we look down on streets that have, throughout the film, been alive with shoppers, street vendors, musicians, gardeners, and people of all ages, colors, and ethnicities. It is nighttime, and the streets, well lit by lampposts and flashing neon store signs, seem eerily peaceful. A subway train floats toward us on an elevated track, an ambulance makes its silent way through an intersection, the camera rises, and for the first time we see the world that exists beyond Jackson Heights. We notice a looping necklace of lights—the Queensboro Bridge—and beyond the bridge, the Manhattan skyline. Then, low on the horizon behind the skyline, fireworks explode soundlessly in the dark sky.

It is the Fourth of July, and while festive bombs burst in air to celebrate the nation’s independence, the movie ends. Under the film’s credits, the grandmothers go on singing “Cielito Lindo,” which urges us to make the best of a bad situation. The moment is rich in playfulness and is informed with irony, as is the rest of this most richly textured and sumptuously beautiful of Wiseman’s forty documentaries.

In Jackson Heights may be seen, as The New York Times said, as “an ode to the immigrant experience”—a “love letter from Frederick Wiseman to New York and its multi-everything glory.” The film has what Wiseman called the “absolute visual feast of colors” given him by the clothes the new immigrants in Jackson Heights wear and the wares they sell, and it gives us scene after scene of the community’s diverse populations—gay and transgender groups (whose members are themselves remarkably diverse), newly arrived immigrants (mostly Latino, but also Bangladeshi, Pakistani, South Asian), as well as Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents who settled in Jackson Heights a generation earlier. The persistent attention to sorrow, despair, and frustration shows an evident part of the truth—one revealed with grace and veracity in the lives of the people we meet.

“For most films,” Wiseman writes in his autobiographical essay “A Sketch of a Life,” “I only visit for a day or two…

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