Public/Private: Conflicting Approaches in New Docs From Wiseman and Seidl


This is one of those weeks where film distributors herd into theaters quality releases they feared audiences wouldn’t turn up for before fall — creating such a glut that audiences still can’t help but miss movies well worth their regard. This week we get two new docs by major filmmakers, one an epic-length examination of How We Live Here, Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, and the other of What They Do Down There, Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement.

The Wiseman is in line with its creator’s best work, a study of the public life of a place and its people stamped by a rare inquisitive patience. It’s a work of community portraiture that slowly develops into collective drama: Here, beneath the clatter of the elevated 7 train, are the diverse communities of Queens’ Jackson Heights neighborhood, in meetings and classes, prepping for citizenship tests, fighting large-scale development projects, becoming cabdrivers. (A taxi-training teacher offers this memorable mnemonic: “Easy to remember: T for tunnel, T for toll.”) Wiseman lets scenes run long, giving his speakers their say: A man in real estate explains to concerned citizens, exhaustively, why landlords can’t resist selling to nonlocal corporate buyers; a retired woman at a community center suggests that her companion, who suffers from loneliness, might pay friends to come talk to her; a transgender woman lays out to members of her LGBT alliance how she was discriminated against at a neighborhood restaurant, and by police officers afterwards.

The running time, 190 minutes, is generous rather than taxing: It’s notable for its breadth, not its length. For every expansive scene of neighbors speaking truths to each other, in many languages, there’s a glimpse of more Jackson Heights that Wiseman and director of photography John Davey don’t have the time to treat in full: nightclubs, straight and gay; services in mosques and churches; employees of local businesses trimming up puppies (cute!) or chucking chickens into industrial pluckers (my eyes!). As always in Wiseman, the technique is matter-of-fact, and his camera feels welcomed into these lives rather than in any way invasive. An invaluable document, the film will stand as a reminder that, for real, as late as 2015, there were New York neighborhoods where real people lived.

What real people get up to is the bent of Seidl’s film, which couldn’t be more different: Its interest is in private lives, in a single population, in subordinating the look and feel of its subjects to the aesthetic vision of their documenter. Seidl follows up the flagellating dramas of his Paradise trilogy by plunging into the basements of Austrians to showcase the things these people treasure — but don’t display for the world. For the first half, in often still shots of rigorously symmetrical composition, he gives us gun-lovers, collectors of Nazi paraphernalia, and brass-band enthusiasts. See the mustachioed old gent tootle on his tuba beneath the heroic portrait of Hitler he received as a wedding gift. Eventually, predictably, the whips come out and the clothes come off, and Seidl introduces a mistress and her love-slave, whom she tasks with nude chores — and with cleaning her up with his tongue after a pee, while she’s still on the pot. In interview segments, Seidl’s people speak with offhand charm; the stories a woman tells of her abusive first marriage are more upsetting and revealing than the quite thorough scene of her being worked over by her master. Seidl being Seidl, that’s shown in one long shot in which the basement’s back corner forms a line splitting down the precise center of the screen — and the split in her ass is lined up with it perfectly. Makes you think, maybe.

In Jackson Heights

Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Zipporah Films

Opens November 4, Film Forum

In the Basement

Directed by Ulrich Seidl

Strand Releasing

Opens November 6, Anthology Film Archives