MARCH 27, 2016
IN A FREDERICK WISEMAN DOCUMENTARY, the location is the subject. And the subject — to dispense with the obvious — is usually a public institution. Government hospitals, welfare centers, juvenile courts, zoos: these are just some of the places in which Wiseman has set his fly-on-the-wall documentaries. From a distance, they may seem commonplace; what he finds there seldom is.
In High School (1968), for example, Wiseman reveals the near-totalitarian agenda behind a Philadelphia public school’s approach to education, by simply filming students and teachers — at meetings, in the classroom, in hallways, in the gym — in their one-sided interactions. In Titicut Follies (1967) he depicts the mocking therapy and sadistic exercise regiments enforced on the hopeless inmates — prisoners, really — at the Bridgewater State Hospital. And in Near Death (1989), perhaps his most harrowing film, Wiseman tenderly but brutally illustrates how even the best doctors at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital are left unsure, after years of hard work, whether they are of help to anyone, or whether they may be, as one doctor put it, “nothing more than furniture salesmen offering families meaningless options.”
I am making these films sound like exposés. But they are far subtler than that. Wiseman’s formal approach can be described as a politically engaged form of cinéma vérité. Having decided to make a film about a public institution, he shows up there, with no prior knowledge, and simply films what he sees. The resulting footage, which usually extends to more than 100 hours, is then edited down in a fugue-like structure without any narration, commentary, interviews, or music, into a two- or three-hour-long documentary. (Near Death, which clocks in at six hours, is the great exception.) What’s extraordinary is that this end product is not only narratively compelling, it also speaks to us with the clarity and insight of a political essay.
How does Wiseman manage this?
“There is a delicate form of the empirical,” Goethe once remarked, “which identifies itself so intimately with its object that it thereby becomes theory.” Wiseman’s work is made in this spirit. He does not explicitly editorialize about the systemic and ideological shortcomings of a particular institution, but by capturing, with great empathy, how individuals are treated by it, he ends up touching upon and humanizing those very shortcomings. Indeed, Wiseman’s great gift is his ability to humanize his subjects as he dramatizes their tensions with the systems that they are part of — a drama so artful that it hardly seems crafted at all.
In Welfare (1975), for instance, there’s a scene in which a welfare official and his superior argue for 10 minutes — and in true vérité fashion, Wiseman films the whole thing — over the merits of a particular female petitioner’s application. All sorts of arcane regulations are discussed before the boss finally delivers a rejection. “Now you should also know,” the official tells his boss as he returns to his desk, “that her kids are starving.”
The signature and the starvation, the banal and the fatal. Wiseman has registered the isolating influence of bureaucracy, and he’s done so without a single editorial interjection. It’s this unique ability to convey without speaking that has won him so many awards and near-unanimous critical acclaim over his 49 years (and 43 films) as a documentarian.
Wiseman’s latest film, In Jackson Heights, however, raises the question of how his style looks when expanded to a canvas as large as a neighborhood.
In an institution, personal interactions reveal their political subtext rather easily. This is because institutions are hermetic — they are bound by a tight set of in-house rules, and the rules are commonly known to everyone there. (When Wiseman’s welfare agent rejects the starving children’s mother, for example, we immediately trace his decision back to the dictates of a flawed political system.)
The politics of a neighborhood, however, are not codified and are thus far less easy to grasp. Neighborhoods have highly permeable sociopolitical boundaries, overlapping jurisdictions, a nebulous machinery of officialdom, and no single set of laws. Who knows all of their neighbors, let alone their local councilmen? To depict a neighborhood’s human interactions in a vérité style, without providing political context or staking a political claim, is to reduce them to their all-too-personal significance. What can be gained from such a depiction? A film, perhaps. But wouldn’t such a film amount to little more than an act of cinematic consumption, and wouldn’t its creator be little more than a cog in the cultural machine? Is it possible, in short, to depict a place as large, complex, and systemically influenced as a neighborhood without taking a political stance, any more than it is possible to live in a neighborhood without political awareness?
Accessible via the R and 7 trains, Jackson Heights, Queens is the “world’s most diverse neighborhood,” which means that for many affluent New Yorkers, it’s a large and exotic brunch spot. On Sundays, people from Manhattan might go to Queens’s 74th Street to eat at Jackson Diner, a bizarrely named Indian restaurant, and then enjoy a stroll through the South Asian diaspora before heading home. Perhaps they go to 80th Street to enjoy the authentic Colombian food. Or 90th Street, which is the heart of the Dominican quarter. More than 167 languages are spoken within these few dozen blocks, so for many outsiders — myself included — Jackson Heights is a convenient pocket of internationalism, a mecca for culinary tourists.
We thus expect a documentary about the neighborhood to “celebrate racial diversity” or, if we have a little more awareness, to lament the inevitable approach of rich white gentrifiers. In Jackson Heights does both of these things but transcends all sentimentalism and exoticizing. In fact, Wiseman uses Jackson Heights to ask a more familiar, if more ambitious, question: what does it mean to live in an American neighborhood?
Because so much is depicted in this film, let me begin by listing, in the style of German fiction, a catalog of events and places visited by Wiseman’s camera:
Montage of train station and surrounding block — Mosque — LGBTQ activist memorial at Jewish community center — Immigrant Support Center — LGBTQ activist meeting — Citizenship training session at immigrant support Center — Montage of grocery store and butcher — Restaurant where political workers are talking with a small businessman — City councilor’s office — Experimental music concert at laundromat — Labor meeting at Colombian store in a mall — Montage of beauty parlors and recycling centers — Office of New Americans Support Group — Spanish concert at up-scale bar — Montage of homeless people getting handouts, tattoo parlor and salsa night club — Senior Citizen’s breakfast club — Old age home — LGBTQ street protest — Halal butcher — Transsexual rights street protest — Labor organization — Montage of Indian restaurant, belly-dancing class, various small businesses — Transgender Rights discussion group — Montage of Columbians watching soccer World Cup at a bar — Montage of Hindu Temple — Labor organization meeting — Latin recording studio — Montage of gay club, outdoor concert, and farmer’s market — Church — Knitting club — Pride Parade — Transgender rights group meeting — Synagogue — ID New York Office — Taxi driver’s test coaching center — Office of New Americans Support Group
What’s immediately clear from this catalog is that Wiseman is interested in the civic life, specifically the community activism, of Jackson Heights. This focus is explained in an early scene. We are at an immigrant support center, and an older white American woman is training Asian immigrants for their citizenship exam:
VOLUNTEER: So if I ask you why do you want to be citizens of the US, what do you say?
BANGLADESHI WOMAN: “Freedom of speech … Freedom of relation, freedom of religion.
VOLUNTEER: No, that’s the Bill of Rights. If the examiner asks you, “Why do you want to become a citizen of the United States?,” what do you say?
Here is a …
VOLUNTEER: What? I don’t understand Bengali … You’ll say, “I want to vote, I want to live in a democracy. I want freedom” … So why do you want to become a citizen?”
BANGLADESHI WOMAN: Only for vote.
The joke, of course, is that no one dreams of simply voting. The Bangladeshi immigrant is expressing, in her uncertain way, what really attracts her to America: the freedom to say what she wants, to spend time with whomever she likes, to practice whatever religion she likes.
But is the woman actually expressing what she likes about America, or is she mechanically reciting the Bill of Rights? We don’t know, and Wiseman won’t tell us. Indeed he has displayed an exemplary (not to mention maddening) level of editorial silence throughout his work. Here is William T. Vollmann writing about a scene in Model (1980): “That model descending the steps excites my pity when I see her being made to do it over and over again. Life, so I want to think, should not be like that. It should be ‘spontaneous.’ Or should it? What does Wiseman want me to learn?”
As if responding to the Bangladeshi immigrant’s ambiguously motivated recitation, Wiseman proceeds to depict the very groups — LGBTQ rights organizations, labor organizations, immigration support groups, religious outreach programs — that protect and most vigorously exercise American civil rights.
Wiseman has always excelled at filming the little wheels of democracy. What others experience as a boring community meeting, he films as a string of fascinating, psychological monologues. While others turn away from street protests, his camera is magnetized by their dangerous energy. Even the most boring government secretary turns into a major moral player when he films her. This can’t be explained away as a consequence of deft cinematography. What strikes us about these sequences, what makes them so mysteriously compelling, is the fact that Wiseman captures them as human dramas as much as political events.
And so we return to the question of his politics.
Most of the organizations that Wiseman depicts operate at a grassroots level. They’re staffed by locals and largely concern themselves with local issues. The LGBTQ support group, for example, honors the death of a gay Latino man who was murdered in the neighborhood. Trans activists picket a restaurant that mistreated one of their community members. We see small knitting groups, senior citizens’ clubs, local wings of immigrant support groups. None of this activism ventures past the boundaries of Jackson Heights. Thus, Wiseman is able to portray the neighborhood as a self-contained political system. To this extent, In Jackson Heights works, and moves us, just like Wiseman’s older institution-focused films.
But things turn problematic the moment an economic problem is examined. The decisive scene unfolds at a small Mexican restaurant. “Do you know the mall on 84th Street?” a young organizer asks the Latino proprietors in Spanish. “Every tenant there has received an eviction notice.” He begins to explain how large corporations are slowly taking over, but he is cut off by one of the proprietors, whose response shows that he understands these things only too well:
They will bring in a new corporation and turn out the small business. Five or seven people live off that business. If six people lose their jobs that means eighteen total people are affected, practically a family. People living in Mexico, people living here, paying rent … if they kick them out, where will they live? What do they expect us to do once they kick us out? Collect cans on the street? Because that’s where it’s heading …. I have employees who are 38 to 40 years old and have been waitresses all their lives. Can I tell these women, “I can’t give you a job anymore? You’re too old, go find another employer? Who’s going to employ her? She has been a waitress all her life. We like these ladies serving us. But the big corporations want young pretty girls.
This speech, delivered in a remarkably measured cadence, goes a long way in grounding the social effects of gentrification. And if In Jackson Heights was a conventional documentary, now is when it would turn into a chronicle of gentrification. But this is a Frederick Wiseman documentary, and there is to be no explicit politics. Wiseman views labor organizers as he views everyone else: from a purely human frame, and within the context of the neighborhood. Consequently, the context of their organizing — the larger economic system — has no place in his documentary.
Given the profusion of organizers in the area, it is unsurprising that the organizers from the Mexican restaurant make only two more appearances. We see them entreating an older businessman to support their cause and, later, leading a large community meeting. These two scenes reveal that the situation is much worse than we previously imagined. Yet they don’t have a meaningful impact on us. They can’t: gentrification, like border policy, another issue that receives stilted attention, is a distant enemy, and things outside the neighborhood need nonlocal context to accrue meaning.
This leads us to a fundamental political incompatibility between Wiseman’s old form and his new subject.
A neighborhood, especially one facing the threat of gentrification, is shaped by numerous external contexts, forces that largely remain hidden and affect people unevenly. Consequently, a portrait can work only if the director is sensitive to these contexts and takes stock of them to give different aspects of the community their due importance. Wiseman, unfortunately, doesn’t do this. Sticking to his old formula, he stakes no explicit political claim, and thus ascribes all phenomena — from successful social protests to street concerts, from struggling labor movements to church scenes, from LGBTQ protests to nightclub scenes — equal importance. These disparate events are democratized; their differing political significances are erased.
It is worth noting here that Wiseman dislikes the term cinéma vérité, which according to him “connotes just hanging around with one thing being as valuable as another.” On a scenic level, he still knows how to compel us with a carefully chosen detail. But on the level of the film in its entirety, each scene of In Jackson Heights is just as valuable as another.
“The cumulative effect,” Wiseman says about his filmography, “is to provide an impressionistic portrait … of some aspects of contemporary American life as reflected through institutions important for the functioning of American society.” Likewise, the ambition of In Jackson Heights is to film life in one immigrant neighborhood, and through these shots, to discover something more general about American neighborhoods. But Wiseman forsakes the crucial second part of the equation. His film starts off strongly, but as he democratically and aimlessly piles on motifs — political, quotidian, cultural, aesthetic — it begins to sink beneath the weight of this context-less cargo until it finally loses all direction and intensity. In short, In Jackson Heights stops being an investigation and turns into an aesthetic exercise. Wiseman stops being an investigator and turns into a flaneur.
But the film’s original investigation is not lost entirely. Wiseman brings it to a provocative conclusion when he contrasts his opening scene, of immigrants talking about the American dream, with a scene in which an immigrant worker, unfairly laid off from his job, admits the following to a support group:
Sometimes one is left wondering what the reality of this country is. What’s the truth in this idea that there are many liberties? Yes, many liberties that also allow for you to be exploited and mistreated. And nobody listens to you. That’s what I feel. With all due respect to those of you who experienced a different situation.
This conclusion, however, feels more powerful when neatly summarized in print than it does in the movie, snuck as it is in the midst of two hours of Wiseman’s wandering — in the midst of seemingly unrelated content.
The writer would like to thank Adam Plunkett for his generous support and vital insights on this essay.