The last documentary in the influential, 50 year-plus career of the late Albert Maysles, In Transit beautifully passes the baton of his “direct cinema” to co-directors Nelson Walker and Lynn True and first-time feature filmmakers David Usui and Ben Wu. All smoothly carry on his innovative techniques of using handheld cameras with modest sound equipment and available light while traveling on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route of more than 3,600 miles, from Chicago to Portland, daily back and forth. The film is also a celebration of Maysles’ knack for making people comfortable enough to offer heartfelt and natural revelations of their hopes and dreams and the people and problems they are leaving behind.
Even in an age of plugged-in attachments (and there are plenty of onscreen mobile devices), the long train ride still connects people, especially through those dark nights. Outside the narrow confines of the berths, diner cars, and stations, the large scenic windows look out on sunrises and sunsets, constantly moving through some of the most spectacular scenery in America and the gritty urban centers that recall Carl Sandburg’s paeans to Western prairie cities. (The views might seem lessened when this is televised on Al Jazeera America.) The diverse riders are very contemporary Lewis and Clarks traveling through a modern country. As the genially philosophical North Dakota-born conductor points out, the train will get rowdy through the oil boom towns, where there are delays from the endless lines of freight trains.
We get caught up in the passengers’ lives because of the skillful editing that maximizes the playing out of individual stories (another Maysles hallmark): Is the young woman fleeing an abusive partner going to give birth before she gets home to Minneapolis? Will the prodigal punk daughter with four mixed-race children be welcomed back by her sister in Montana? Did the 24-year-old oil field roughneck make the right, beer-soaked, quixotic choice to return to his long-ago high school sweetheart in Portland? Can the elderly mother keep in contact with her adopted-out children she just rediscovered? And on.
When I was a kid, we had a class trip to visit another long-distance train, the legendary Phoebe Snow at Newark’s Penn Station, and I now feel as though I finally came on board next to my late friend Harry, who liked to initiate conversations with strangers. Just try not to hum Chicagoan Steve Goodman’s geographically incorrect, but thematically appropriate “The City of New Orleans” by the end.
Albert Maysles has left his legacy in good hands—RIP.