“The best comedy is sad comedy.”
As its title indicates, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary In Jackson Heights is a plunge into the Queens neighborhood unofficially known as the most diverse in the world. From the mosque to the Jewish community center, from a poultry slaughterhouse to the strobing lights of a gay bar with go-go dancers, and from the taxi school instructor who missed his calling as a standup comedian to the receptionists stoically taking angry calls for a city council member, Wiseman has scoured the streets to bring us not only a portrait of a neighborhood but a reflection on the very idea of our nation. The Jackson Heights of Wiseman’s film functions as a powerful microcosm. It’s a place where civil liberties flourish, but safe havens are threatened by free markets, with recent arrivals exploited for cheap labor and small shopkeepers driven out by a Business Improvement District designed to usher in big-box stores. Viewers will be delighted by a film as dizzyingly varied in its colors and moods as the area it focuses on, heartened by the commitment of the grass-roots organizations and activists that are at its center, but also chilled by the processes endangering the neighborhood and its population. As such, the film is most valuable as a primer on the American experiment today.
Nicholas Elliot I’ve lived in Woodside, right on the border of Jackson Heights, for eleven years.
Frederick Wiseman So you know the scene?
NE I do know the scene. But it gave me pause to realize that I knew about 80% of the places that you filmed but none of the people. That made me feel like a bit of a failure on a human level.
FW I don’t know… there are a lot of people there. It’s huge! I discovered the other day it’s 300 square acres, which is not that big, but it’s huge in terms of population. 156,000 people. Belfast, Maine, which is another small community I shot, is 6,000 people, and the square acreage is, you know, much greater. (laughter)
NE Is that why this is called IN Jackson Heights, whereas your film about Aspen is Aspen and the one about Belfast, Maine is Belfast, Maine?
FW Well, it was really a continuation of At Berkeley, because Berkeley was so vast: 35,000 students, 4,000 faculty, 5,000 administrators… I didn’t want to call it Berkeley because I didn’t want to give the suggestion that it was all of Berkeley. Similarly, with In Jackson Heights, I didn’t want to call it Jackson Heights, in the sense that it was meant to be every aspect of Jackson Heights.
NE Did you initially go in search of a melting pot to film, or were you particularly interested in Jackson Heights?
FW Well, I didn’t look at any other communities. A friend of mine lives in Jackson Heights. From what I heard, I thought it might make an interesting film. I went and walked around, and I thought it would.
NE How long did you walk around?
FW Half a day.
FW Visually it’s fantastic. All the colors, and clothes, and signs. Roosevelt Avenue and all the shopping streets—73rd and 74th, 37th Avenue. It’s a visual feast.
NE So the original attraction was aesthetic?
FW No, the original attraction was wanting to make a movie about the new immigrants to America. But I was attracted to the way Jackson Heights looked.
NE What was day one of filming like?
FW Day one was sort of wandering up and down the street, shooting push-cart vendors and people selling scarves and clothes in the street, and just roaming around. Shooting signs in front of buildings, shooting the shadows the subway made as it went by. Picking up some ambulance noises and police car noises. A friend of mine who teaches at City College lives there, and he and his wife provided me with a list of all the community organizations. I also made contact with Steve Noble. He runs the Jewish community center. He showed me around and introduced me to a very prominent guy in the Bengali and East Asian communities. He helped me get permissions.
NE So you knew that your way in would be community organizations? The film focuses mostly on grass-root organizations rather than official institutions. We don’t go into the hospital or the schools. We don’t ride with the police.
FW Well, that’s the way it evolved. I couldn’t get permission to hang out with the police. That really surprised me because I’ve met with the police in a lot of other places. They said I couldn’t ride around in the police cars. There was a police-community relations meeting at the Jewish Community Center and another meeting at the 115th street precinct. They wouldn’t let me shoot either one.
NE So your primary approach to the neighborhood was literally to wander the streets?
FW Some of it is wandering. The model is Las Vegas. You shoot craps. You wander in the street. I heard women with Southern accents, I saw them sweeping the street, so we started to shoot that because, you know: What were they doing there? Then another woman came up and she asked a woman sweeping, who she recognized as a Southern Baptist, to pray for her dying father. Well, that was just luck! Luck and recognizing it for what it is. First, I heard these people speaking in Southern accents and sweeping the street. So that seemed strange, and interesting, so I asked one of them what they were doing and she said they were on a mission, from wherever they were from in Alabama, to help clean up New York. That’s both interesting and funny. So we started to shoot them, and then this other woman showed up, who obviously heard their accent as well, and recognized them as Southern Baptist.
NE Do you think that she took in the fact that they were being filmed when she showed up, or was that outside her experience?
FW I have no idea. I guess she was so immersed in the fact of her father dying that she couldn’t have cared less about being filmed.
NE I ask because while seeing some of your other films at the Museum of the Moving Image, I’ve been thinking about how the presence of the camera changes things. In Central Park, for instance, there is a long scene with some potential wealthy donors discussing how much they love the park, and it seems very much like they’re performing for the camera.
FW I don’t think so. You mean the scene in the apartment?
NE Yes. The sequence ends with a conversation between three people. The camera is just on them and it’s a very extended conversation, very laudatory and nearly presentational on their part. You get the feeling they’re aware that this is a good way to put forth their…
FW Well, you develop a bullshit detector that you have to rely on. I didn’t think they were doing that for the camera. If I did, I wouldn’t have used it.
NE I didn’t think of it as bullshit or as something that didn’t belong in the film…
FW What I mean is that you get a sense when someone is saying something that they wouldn’t ordinarily say.
NE I thought that even though they might not ordinarily say it, the fact that they were saying it for the camera was an interesting insight into who they are, and their idea of sophistication.
FW Yeah, well, that is certainly true.
NE I also thought about it in watching Hospital. The scene with the young man who is having a bad trip on mescaline becomes like a play.
FW It does become like a play. But he certainly wasn’t throwing up for the camera! (laughter) I mean you couldn’t write that! You’d have to be a genius writer to come up with his lines. He says: “You can’t do nothing with art. You can’t do nothing with nothing. I think I’ll go home to Minnesota.” You know, it’s forty-seven years since I heard those lines, but I still remember them. That’s brilliant dialogue!
NE Do any of these people show up at screenings?
FW I don’t keep track of the people in my movies. I don’t try to give the impression that I’m making new best friends because that’s phony. I live in a different part of the country, or a different part of the world. I’m friendly and straight-forward, but I’m not there to make new friends. I’m there to make a movie.
NE In Jackson Heights is about a community—which is a pretty amorphous notion. We can decide what a community is. What’s fascinating about the film is that it shows that there are all these different communities—but it also makes us reflect on the greater community. On what this country is—or what this country could be.
FW Yes! Absolutely! Good!
NE This seems quite explicit in the last shot, when we see the Manhattan skyline in the distance for the first time, with Fourth of July fireworks going off.
FW That is quite explicit. But I think that shot raises a variety of questions. It’s not didactically explicit. It’s meant to be both provocative and questioning.
NE I agree. It encourages us to look beyond the frame.
FW You are looking at, among other things, a city that previous generations of immigrants have built.
NE That seems like a clear intention. I know you discover your films in making them—particularly in the editing.
NE Can you tell me how these intentions became clearer to you in the process of making In Jackson Heights?
FW I can describe the process of editing—which involves sitting in a chair—till the movie gets made. When I come back from a shoot, I look it all over, and that takes me four to six weeks. I make notes about it. I set aside about 50% of the material. Then I edit all the sequences I think might make it into the final film. That can take six to eight months. It’s only when I have all of the so-called candidate sequences in close-to-final form that I begin to work on the structure. Some people can work on structure in the abstract—I can’t. I have to figure out the implications of starting a movie one way, ending it another way, what the connections are, how one scene illuminates another, etc. Most of the editing has nothing to do with the tactical aspects. It has to do with familiarizing yourself with the material, and—whether correctly or not—thinking that you understand what’s going on in the rushes. If you don’t have a theory, if you don’t think you understand what’s going on in the rushes, you can’t make the choices: one, whether to use the sequence, two, how to edit it, and three, where it should be placed. So, I have to feel—and whether it is delusional or not is not for me to say.
When In Jackson Heights was finished I could go through it from beginning to end and explain why each shot was where, what each shot’s relationship is to the shot that follows. How the first ten minutes connect to the last ten minutes. I have to be able to rationalize. I have to be able to explain to myself why I did what I did, even though I may have arrived at some cuts in dreams, or in the shower, or walking in the street, while some others are due to a very rational deductive process. If I can’t explain it to myself, there’s something wrong.
After six or eight months of editing I make the first assembly in three or four days. That usually results in something forty minutes or so longer than the final film. Then I work on the internal rhythm within the sequences, and the external rhythm between the sequences, then when I think its done, I go back and look at all the rushes all over again to make sure there is nothing I’ve forgotten, or nothing that I thought was irrelevant that turns out to be useful.
NE Do you think about entertainment?
FW Absolutely! I think In Jackson Heights is very funny.
NE I agree.
FW I think all my films are funny, actually. But I don’t think of them in terms of entertainment. I think sometimes they are sad, sometimes there are tragic elements in them, but I think, above all, they’re funny.
NE The human comedy.
FW Yes. I hope I don’t make fun of people, but, you find yourself in a lot of situations that are funny. Or sometimes they are both funny and sad. I mean, the best comedy is sad comedy, actually.
NE In this film, there’s a very elderly woman at the senior citizen center, talking to another woman, who is insisting that she should pay someone to be her friend. The loneliness of the scene is devastating, but the situation is hilarious.
FW Yes, that’s right, that’s a good example.
NE In Jackson Heights seems very carefully calibrated to—forgive me if this sounds flippant—to create a pleasant experience, with an alternation of disturbing scenes about gentrification, for instance, with scenes that could be construed as comic relief.
FW It’s like writing a novel. I like to think I’m sensitive to it. For example, with In Jackson Heights, after a long dialogue sequence, you need something funny, or something musical. For lack of a better way of describing it, one of the ways I edited In Jackson Heights was at right angles—by that I mean that it’s hard to predict what the next sequence is going to be. By “right angles,” I mean the sequence is completely different than what preceded it.
NE Speaking of novels, you’ve often said that you are more influenced by books and poetry than movies.
FW It’s hard to know what influences you, but I don’t see many movies, so it’s easy for me to say I’m not influenced by them.
NE What books were particularly important to you?
FW Oh! At the risk of sounding pretentious, I like the great American novels of the 19th century. And I like some of the great American novelists of the 20th century, like Phillip Roth, Bellow, Malamud. But I like Henry James, and Melville. I mean The Confidence Man is one of the great books; I think it’s just as great a book as Moby Dick. You read The Confidence Man and you see all the American types who you read about in The New York Times every day. Al Sharpton is in The Confidence Man, and some of these hedge-fund managers are in there, too. It’s all there. It’s a brilliant comic book.
NE I’m reading Middlemarch at the moment—
FW That’s another great book.
NE Well, it’s funny, because having read an interview with you earlier, where you talk about this idea of your films being novelistic, I’m now reading Middlemarch with the idea of it being a documentary.
NE It really works! Not when there’s an authorial interjection, which George Eliot does a lot, but when you’re moving from one family or one place to another it has the scope of one of your films. And perhaps a similar ambition.
FW The issues in fiction are the same. The issues in any form are the same, in the sense of characterization, passage of time, metaphor, etc. You find the same general issues in painting, ballet, novels, and plays. The way they present themselves or the way they’re worked out is different, but the theoretical issues are the same.
NE How does metaphor work in your films? Can you give me an example from In Jackson Heights?
FW I don’t know… you try to create it. I don’t like to explain my films, but when a film works—not only my film, but any film—it has to proceed on two tracks. It has to proceed on the literal track. Who’s saying what to whom, what clothes they’re wearing, etc. And it has to proceed on the abstract and sometimes metaphoric track. Which is suggested by the literal order, the literal selection, and order of the sequences.
The end of In Jackson Heights is an example of that. On the one hand, it is a shot of New York on the Fourth of July. But I place it at the end of the film… and it’s the first time you see Manhattan. Even though Jackson Heights is twenty-five minutes away on the F train, it’s the first time you see it in the movie. Why? What’s the significance? Does that have any significance? I think it does. In the structure of the movie it has a great significance.
NE When you are shooting that shot and the fireworks are going off, do you have a sense…
FW I knew it was a great shot. I didn’t know how I was going to use it. But I knew that I would use it. But where I was going to use it, and the duration of the shot, and what other sounds might be connected with it, I had no idea.
NE Your editing wheels are not spinning when you’re shooting.
FW They are spinning in a general way—but editing is very specific. They are spinning in the sense that I recognize—for example, with the Southern Baptists—I know that’s a good sequence, and I know I’m going to use it, but how I’m going to use it, how important it is going to be, where it’s going be placed, I have no idea.
NE I think the idea that one superficially has about gentrification—especially here in New York—is that it’s about hipsters coming in, little boutiques, cool bars, etc. But this film makes it very clear that it’s The Gap and Home Depot. Was that a theme you were aware of going into?
FW I had no idea. I learned it as a consequence of making the movie. And it was really during the last couple weeks of the shooting, when I came across the community organizers.
NE That’s fascinating because it’s such an important structural device throughout the film.
FW But the reverse can also be true—something can happen in the first few days which are very important. That’s happened to me. That’s just part of the Las Vegas aspect of it.
NE The gentrification aspect is what makes the film so poignant to me, because you get the sense that Jackson Heights is a fragile utopia. I’m exaggerating, I know it’s not a utopia, but…
FW …it’s a fragile community.
NE You get a sense that some things are really working there, and that a lot of things have developed in the right direction, but that there’s a danger—a danger that brings us back to questions about communities in America: Who’s in, who’s out, can you stay, can you get in?
FW Exactly. Or simply: Can you make it?
Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights opens at Film Forum in New York on November 4, 2015.
Nicholas Elliott is the New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma and a contributing editor in film for BOMB.