“We’re on a road to nowhere/ Come on inside/ Takin’ that ride to nowhere/ We’ll take that ride”, as a Talking Heads song goes, could have been the soundtrack to the late Albert Maysles’ last documentary, In Transit. However, a less upbeat, more melodic and melancholic remix may have been needed to suit the rhythm of this deeply humanistic film that builds on the romanticism associated with long train journeys.
The film follows a multitude of characters aboard the Empire Builder long-distance route from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest, conveying, amongst this diversity, an existential angst and a predisposition towards kindness common to them all.
We see a mother have a late-night conversation with her freshly graduated daughter about the meaning of not knowing what’s coming next, a theme that comes up throughout the film. A black man sits next to a 20-something white girl on her way to a skiing holiday and tells her off for complaining about life, making decisions and money. Struggling to really stay afloat, he tells her he had no time for that when he was her age and, after all, she’s going on a skiing holiday, things can’t be all that bad.
People get off the train and the camera follows them for a few instants after. The relief of sharing a space with others that are open to admit to not knowing where they’re headed (sometimes literally, mostly metaphorically) disperses. They greet family and are thrown back into rootedness.
The pure moments in which we observe the interaction between various characters are interspersed with individual interviews, sometimes acting as voiceovers for poetic shots of the train winding its way across swampland, empty stations and misty night skies. It speeds across a wide range of exteriors that mirror the social variety the train holds in its interiors. In Transit acts as a portrait of America and of what it could be socially, as strangers talk, listen and share advice about dealing with financial hardship, family responsibilities, racial inequality, the past and regrets. The editing offers an ebb and flow, grouping together themes in such a way that different conversations on the same topic appear to be part of one big discussion, without forgetting to offer moments of respite and alternations between heavier and lighter subjects.
Directed by an ensemble of filmmakers, with Maysles credited as an overseeing power even when he could no longer shoot, In Transit feels like half of what Maysles could have done had he been immortal. Indeed, as the rest of the crew said in the Q & A, he had wanted to shoot a documentary on trains for a long time, yet with a more ambitious scope: it would have been set on trains across the world, and the camera would have followed characters after getting off a train for a while longer than it does in In Transit.
Maysles was one of the founding fathers of direct cinema, a pure form of observational documentary filmmaking. With his 1968 Salesman he pushed the boundary between fiction and documentary, yet not in the manner that people talk about that ambiguous line today (in terms of performativity, outwardly playing with truth etc). Rather, by following the journey of a group of bible salesmen that manipulate working-class families into buying their colourful, shiny bibles, the film stands as testament that documentary can be as engaging as narrative storytelling. It sets out to let us into the world of cunning salesmen that hate their jobs and to empathise with them, to want to understand them. The characters really do become characters and one starts to enter their subjectivity, to really watch and weigh their actions. On the other hand, In Transit always stays at that level that many documentaries want to surpass, where its aesthetics remind you that you are watching constructed visual sequences that want to convey an idea, where its characters act as illustrations, a level dominated by the cerebral while yearning for the emotional.
There is a certain romanticism that envelops long train journeys, as they offer a feeling of liberation, reflection and equality that comes with sharing space. It is an opportunity to see a different side to someone than they would be willing to show outside of that context. Because it depicts a multitude of characters at a certain point in time, and only to highlight a particular aspect of their conversations, the film does not fully convince that journeys do bring out something deep inside us, something we lose when in a static state, and what that something may be. The setting of an Amtrak train may have also not been the most suitable to bring out that sense of wandering spirits – the fluorescent lighting, the clinically cushioned seats, the shiny metal. Or perhaps this reviewer may just be longing for her own run-down Eastern European trains combined with a touch of Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Express.
With the melancholia surrounding Maysles’ death, it is only normal to wonder what could have been. Nonetheless, this should not deter one from enjoying In Transit for what it is, namely a documentary that looks at people on their journeys, something that great literature, folk musicians and, most obviously, road movies have drawn their inspiration from.
A closing note: this is the only film this reviewer got to see at Tribeca. She was in New York with other affairs and had missed the deadline for the press pass. Hence, she was the average film-loving Joe. A ticket for a non-matinee screening was 18$. Comparatively, a ticket to see a film in competition at the Berlinale, for example, ranges from 7-12€ (8-13$).