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Outer-Borough Aliens: ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘In Jackson Heights’

Outer-Borough Aliens: 'Brooklyn' and 'In Jackson Heights'

This article was produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy. Read more on this year’s class here.

In “Brooklyn,” the John Crowley’s film based on Colm Toibin’s novel that opens on November 4, Eillis Lacey (Saorsie Ronan) leaves behind her Irish mother and sister for America, land of opportunity and plenty, neither of which she seems to lack upon arrival. “Brooklyn” takes on at first a mythic approach to the titular borough, witnessed early on through a pearly grey lens as Eilis fixes her eye on the doors at the end of the immigration line flooded with heavenly white light. She has been instructed on how to look and act, readied and prepped with lipstick and scarves, smiles and thank-yous for this occasion, the big welcome to her new life. The initiating pageantry makes for an idealized start.

The romanticism tapers off Christmas weekend, when Eilis serves hot meals to dozens of old Irishmen. They lack wives or families, at least in America, and as local priest Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) half-rhetorically inquires, who will take care of them now, these builders of bridges and railways, the men whose hands built the city? A sobering thought, though its soot and grime has little effect on Eilis’s dream. The film refrains from devolving into a contest of new world versus old, with the former full of filth and flophouses and degenerate predators. In fact, Nick Hornby’s script is absent of villains. Brooklyn turns out to be mostly a warm, welcome place for Eilis. She has the sympathies of the not-quite strangers, from the boarding house den mother (a delightfully persnickety Julie Walters) to the floor manager at Bartucci’s department store (Jessica Paré), even if the latter is a little icy in a French couture-wearing sort of way. Even her fellow boarders are not duplicitous betches, despite what the black sheep of the group says.

Everybody’s rooting for Eilis, but she cannot swallow the ghastly homesickness, bobbing up at every turn. Brooklyn’s mythic and enchanting ideals are not dispelled by any harsh realities of the city, but by Eilis’s budding loneliness. The narrative makes a point to focus on her inner struggle as she comes of age, airing on the right side of emotion, not sentiment. Though a modest and specific tale, it suggests something larger, as wide as Eilis’s possibilities. It circles the concept of home, ephemeral and evolving as both a physical and mental space.

The idea of home carries over to “In Jackson Heights,” whose subjects could be contemporaries to the fictional Eilis and her cohorts half a decade later. If Eilis embarked to find a home, the subjects of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary work hard to maintain it.

The bulk of the film tracks the endless meetings of advocacy groups and community organizations hoping to achieve change, protect their livelihoods, and improve their lives in all manners of ways. Where “Brooklyn” focuses on a singular story and new world allure, “In Jackson Heights” illuminates a mosaic of the languages, cultures, and idiosyncrasies of the Queens neighborhood by taking a day-to-day approach.

Uncomplicated close-ups abound of people encompassing a wide spectrum of ethnicities and ages doing nothing in particular, simply standing, listening, breathing, living. “Brooklyn” notably shares a similar technique; as Eilis acclimates to the city, the camera lingers on individual faces in the huddled mass stalking home, cementing the urban understanding that everyone is simultaneously alone, yet not.

Without preface or introductions viewers are plunged, or rather nimbly plucked and placed as per Wiseman’s style, front and center to witness the undulations of Jackson Heights, its life and beauty. A sampling: a multi-lingual taxi cab academy, a musical performance of teacup and stemware (in a laundromat, of all places), young Arab students at a madrasa, a rainbow array of julienned recyclables. The film keeps at bay any rushes of anxiety, and as in “Brooklyn,” Wiseman does not call attention to a tangible enemy. Nor is the word “gentrification” ever uttered (though “gringo” is used once in conversation). The struggles and obstacles are prevalent and inherent to the weave of sequences and images and underneath the poignant and mundane, something threatens the sleepy rhythm of daily existence.

“Why do you want to become an American citizen?” The question is posed to those preparing to apply for a passport. The pupils discuss freedom of speech, religion before the tutor recommends as an answer the right vote, for both brevity and a demonstrated understanding of democratic rule. However, the cleverly placed proceeding scene allows a hair of skepticism to arise when small business owners confront a confusingly worded survey essentially omitting/disallowing the option to voice an objection against the controversial Business Improvement District, with aims to supplant the mostly immigrant owned mom-and-pop shops with Gap or Home Depot.

A villain looms overhead in the form of greed, belonging to no particular class, race, or sex, as a woman in the final scene asserts. Eilis is her own worst enemy in “Brooklyn,” which ends on a hopeful note as she passes down advice (and perhaps her homesickness) to a new émigré. The people of Jackson Heights face a real threat and the waning glow of opportunity afforded to Eilis. Wiseman’s documentary picks up the optimistic threads of Crowley’s film and provides a glimpse into the hazy future of not only New York, but the nation as a whole.

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