For those who believe that death represents a journey from one plane of existence to another, it will seem apropos that the final feature directed by the late and legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, made when he was nearly 90 years old, takes place entirely on a cross-country train. In Transit, on which Maysles collaborated with four other directors, can’t compare to the pioneering Direct Cinema docs he made with his brother, David (who died in 1987)—such classics as Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970), and Grey Gardens (1975). But it’s very much of a piece with Maysles’ lifelong commitment to capturing reality on the fly, offering a vivid cross-section of regular folks who all happen to be aboard the Empire Builder, an Amtrak train that makes a three-day journey between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. The film’s ideal audience is people who, riding public transportation, would rather eavesdrop on other passengers’ idle conversations than don noise-canceling headphones and get lost in a book.
“If you’re at a crossroads, why are you snowboarding?” one man reasonably asks of someone else’s ostensible quest for self-knowledge. “When I was at a crossroads, I was robbing people for lunch. Like, that’s a crossroad. What you’re doing is going on vacation.” We never actually see the person he’s complaining about, but the passengers we do see—some talk directly to the camera, others ignore it—have a multitude of reasons for being on the Empire Builder. An elderly woman speaks frankly about the abusive marriage she endured, which led her to give up her young children, for their protection; she’s on her way back from visiting a daughter she hadn’t seen in 47 years. Staring out the window at the plains, a Native American man explains that he often makes this trip when he feels a need to reconnect with the land. College kids sing Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” accompanied by acoustic guitar. (Try getting away with that on a plane.) There’s even a touch of suspense surrounding a young pregnant woman, reportedly already several days past her due date.
For better and worse, Maysles and his team don’t impose any sort of grand philosophical thesis on these random encounters. The notion of wanting to pick up stakes and restart your life in a new location recurs throughout, but the film (which runs a brisk 76 minutes) is mostly content just to sample the populace, trusting in humanity itself to hold the viewer’s interest. To that end, In Transit doesn’t strive for the imposing visual rigor of other recent train-related docs, like James Benning’s RR or J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry; here, standard shots of passing landscapes through the window alternate with equally standard shots of the train in motion as viewed from fixed positions beside the tracks. The focus remains firmly on the passengers, who could arguably be anywhere that a diverse collection of individuals tend to congregate. The Empire Builder merely offers Maysles captive subjects for what turned out to be his farewell tour of America. He’d been on the road for nearly 60 years. Beat that, Mick Jagger.