There was a bat in the theater at the first screening of “In Jackson Heights” in Venice. It’s probably very bad form to include mention of such an extraneous detail in a review of any film, let alone one from revered documentary Godhead Frederick Wiseman. But this is a film about community as a general concept, and also about communities: the titular New York neighborhood — which proudly claims to be the most diverse place on earth with 167 languages spoken within its just-under-half-a-square-mile — and the smaller tribes and groups and coalitions that it comprises. Many of these are based around nationality or ethnicity or religious heritage as one might expect with its admixture of so many different races and cultures.
But more still are based around shared experience: people who have crossed borders illegally; small business owners threatened by encroaching corporations; gay seniors who were at the forefront of the area’s embrace of Pride; older ladies who meet in coffee shops to knit and talk about graveyards and Tyrone Power. More than geographical location, it is shared experience that creates a communal bond between disparate individuals, and there’s nothing like a bat flying about in your movie theater, every now and then dipping into the projector beam and casting a tiny flapping batsignal onto the screen, to remind you, in the murmurs and reactions of the people around you, that in being part of this audience watching this film right now, you too are part of a community of sorts, be it ever so temporary. “In Jackson Heights” is the sort of lovely, immersive, intelligent documentary that gives rise to such thoughts even without the benefit of a flying rodent, but the bat sure helped.
One of the reasons, of course, that you get to luxuriate in an occasional daydream during the film is that it is long: it’s the most recent of three consecutive Wiseman films to crack the 3-hour mark, after the terrific “At Berkeley” and the lovely, meditative “National Gallery,” and the twelfth to sail past that marker in his career overall. But it’s also because of how it is designed; both considered and considerate, a rhythm is soon established whereby each interlude of deeply engrossing dialogue or speechifying is followed by a palate cleanser series of shots of neighborhood life. So after diving deep into one woman’s long story, told to a community support group for illegal residents of the area, of her daughter’s fortnight lost in the desert en route to the United States, we get a quick shuffle of street vendors, trains rattling overhead, dildo displays in sex shops, women pushing prams, diseased fish staring out from murky pet store aquaria. Or we get a musical interlude from a busking mariachi girl band, or a couple playing a weird set of homemade percussion instruments for the benefit of the customers at a laundromat. In these brief, restful but lively intermissions, we get the chance to do something most films never allow us to do. We get to think.
Wiseman’s skill behind the camera is such that our thinking is directed, of course, just as much as the film. Using careful, looping sound design that brackets the more disjointed images together gracefully, and eschewing any voiceover or obvious insertion of himself into the narrative (he is the anti-Michael Moore, the un-Nick Broomfield in this regard), you could almost think he’s not there. But then how to account for the profound level of fascination that you suddenly find yourself having in stories and episodes that of themselves you would never imagine to be interesting? That is Wiseman’s genius, as much in evidence here as anywhere — this quality of paying steadfast, riveted attention to the banal and making it meaningful and illuminating as a result. The film reminds us that a movie camera, similar in this way to a gun, is more than just a machine: it carries in it the intent of the person wielding it. And Wiseman’s intent, with “In Jackson Heights,” is to communicate his own interest in the invisible mechanics of community living in such a way that it becomes our own.
But even Wiseman’s biggest fan can probably admit that “In Jackson Heights” could, if it’s not too sacrilegious to say, be a little shorter. He returns to a couple of the strands maybe one time more often than he needs to — it could be tighter without being any the less instructive and rewarding. And it will not be for everyone: such is the nature of a 190-minute film in which good ten minute chunks can be spent on a single shot of a man standing in a hairdresser’s back room delivering an impassioned explanation of the mechanics of gentrification and why an upcoming commercial proposal will spell doom for the area and its homegrown businesses. Or when entire segments are dedicated to conference calls or meetings in gray offices as local hero and City Councilman Daniel Dromm discusses school zoning issues. Or when we watch a young woman in Dromm’s office field irate phone calls, with her side of the conversation playing out in its entirety, and every careful response, eloquent eyeroll or interrupted answer speaking volumes as to the kind of complaints and complainants she deals with every single day. This is a thrumming hymn to the Brownian motion of everyday life.
As a portrait of a vibrant, inclusive, embattled community and the pride it has in itself and its Babel Tower of chattering cultures, politics, races, ages and sexualities, “In Jackson Heights” will be catnip to Wiseman’s many fans, even if it does feel less urgent than some of the films that made his name, from “Domestic Violence” all the way back to “Titicut Follies.” It is thoughtful and absurd and so full of activity that the more fanciful among us might wonder if the wildlife in their theater is some sort of manifestation. It’s unlikely, despite Wiseman’s reach and clout, that he will be able to guarantee a bat in every screening, but even without that interactive element, “In Jackson Heights” serves to remind us that our worlds are full of living things, and that, being the social creatures we are, we need each other. [B+]