Documentary Spotlight: Albert Maysle’s “In Transit”

On Labor Day weekend, at the end of a summer season that was among the most divisive in modern American history, I slipped into the Brattle Theater in Harvard Square for a well-attended screening of Albert Maysles’ final film, In Transit. The nominal subject is Amtrak’s popular Empire Builder route between Chicago and Seattle. But it’s more about the human connections made possible by the relaxed close proximity of passengers and staff on a train moving over great distances. I came out of it more hopeful about the future than I probably had the right to be, considering the rise of racial extremism, political putrefaction and the torturous first months in office of a president whose every waking hour seems dedicated to narcissism and ill will.

Albert Maysles, who died at age 88 in March of 2015, will always be remembered for the great documentaries of the Sixties and Seventies he made with his brother David, who passed away in 1987. Chief among these, of course, was Salesman, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. The brothers were also instrumental in the advent of the rock film when they were the first to film the Beatles on their First U.S. Visit (as it was later known on DVD). To find out more on this story, see the review in the excerpt of my book ROCK DOCS, by clicking on the cover image in the right hand column.

The Maysles were known for being in the right place at the right time and this is also the case with Albert’s last work, made with co-directors Lynn True, David Usul, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu. Trump may not have president yet when the film was produced (it debuted in 2015 and is only in limited release even now) but America’s deep socio-political fault lines were already a much covered subject by then. In Transit is a compact (only 76 minutes long) and very welcome update on the idea that the cause of human diplomacy, and the betterment of the human condition, is best achieved when conditions are optimal.


A great fatherly pronouncement: “There’s part of the human spirit that will not be snuffed out.”

So it is here. As opposed to the isolation of car trips, or the increasingly frustrating and cramped nature of air travel, unhurried long-distance train rides lend themselves to both contemplation aided by passing scenery and social mingling by passengers free to roam the aisles. And this is what happens, in a style that could be called enhanced cinema verite. The subjects know they are being filmed but Maysles’ trademark unobtrusive style keeps them at their ease. A look at the trailer below will give you a good idea of the film’s thoughtful tone. People are trying to find themselves or lose themselves, others are coming from or going to meet-ups with relatives, friends and potential partners with various degrees of optimism or apprehension. Some are living out old-fashioned notions of romantic travel while still others are looking for better employment opportunities, in this case mostly in the North Dakota oil fields. Everybody is “in transit” in more ways than one.

What you don’t get in this exceptionally serene film is any sense of the distressing breakdown of civility that has been exacerbated by the anonymity and callousness that so often defines our frazzled online age. The fleeting friendship between an older white ex-soldier with PTSD and a young and very pregnant black woman fleeing a bad relationship to deliver her baby near her family in Minneapolis is one of several touching encounters that. It unpretentiously shows the value of empathetic conversation and self-reflection that otherwise may have turned to fodder for the free-ranging resentments of social media’s darker forces. The Empire Builder may start and end in the blue states of Illinois and the Pacific Northwest while travelling thru several very red states, but here at least the rips in the social fabric seem to have the potential to be sewn back together a bit by nothing so revolutionary as a face-to-face coming to terms, both with your fellow citizen-passengers and the face that’s reflected back to you when looking out at the wide open spaces of the world we inhabit. What a wonderful parting gift from Mr. Maysles

4 comments

  1. Hi Rick — great review! It’s funny — Meg and I also went to the Brattle to see the film last weekend and really enjoyed it (for the same reasons you described in your post). I did a similar trip myself in the summer of 1991 from Boston to San Francisco (via Chicago) and had a very similar experience so the film (and your review) definitely resonate with me! Best — Daniel

  2. Thanks for the recommendation as I really like the sound of this movie for all the reasons you give above. Sadly not everyone wants to engage in conversation (even whilst travelling long distances in an unhurried fashion) but when they do, it can make for a wonderful journey. Great that you left that film feeling more optimistic about the future. The balance in your country is a bit out-of-kilter at the moment but the very nature of balance means that an equilibrium will be found again in due course – I am optimistic about that!

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