In Transit is humanistic, beautiful, fluid, emotionally riveting and understated all at the same time. In many ways it is just what you would expect from the last film by legendary non-fiction filmmaker Albert Maysles (with additional direction by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu and David Usui). But in other ways, it surprises.
The setting is the Empire Builder, America’s busiest long-distance train route, which travels frequently between Chicago and Portland/Seattle. For many towns on the route, it is the primary or only public transportation option. In the winter, it is often the most reliable.
Life can be extremely dramatic, even in what initially seems to be a banal setting. The stories people swap and share here might usually resemble the first one - a young man from the South who just quits his job one days, packs his bag and heads to the Northwest. But much more drama than this will be revealed. Some moments are deeply intimate while others are fleeting, throw-away or lighthearted. What emerges, though, is a loving portrait of humanity and hope for the future. It is also a reverent look at the landscape, sometimes mountainous and spectacular, other times more monotonous but filled with significance.
A woman tells a stranger about the young man she just chatted with, reporting that he is an unemployed potter on his way to an interview and some snowboarding. He is at a crossroads, she explains. The man listening responds with incredulity. When he was out of work he was robbing people for lunch money, he says, only those with money can afford this kind of dilemma. "That's not a crossroads, that's a vacation!"
Intense drama come when a young pregnant woman boards the train. She is getting away from some trouble with her boyfriend and the staff believe she's made her way up from the Bay Area. Airlines won't take her - she's already overdue - but she is determined to make it to Minneapolis where her family and best friends live. The train staff discuss the dilemma - some worried, other chuckling. One woman is not worried: "I got a cup of hot water and some towels. We can do this." In the last shot we see of the mother-to-be running down the platform, tiny suitcase trailing behind her, still nimble and seemingly carefree. Abroad she strikes up a friendship with an ex-marine, who is taking a last trip after a heart attack. Anxiety, depression, PTSD - he's got them all but photography relaxes him and he snaps photos of the girl while she tells him that he'd be better off with pitures of the scenery than of her.
Those who travel often or grew up along the route offer perspective on the one big change - the emergence of the oil fields of North Dakota. This has changed the landscape and the demographic more than anything. The train is full of young men who are alone. Most are missing their families. A few will abandon their dreams of big money because of a girl back home. This angle makes this a political film as well as a sociological one.
Why do people travel? Why do they take the train? Many of the characters aboard are experiencing life transitions, mirrored by the movement of the train. While the film is certainly a love letter to the train itself (why can't we have more great, affordable train travel options in North America?) the intention of the film goes far beyond that. Structurally it is magnificent - it is not chronological or linear and we skip from westbound to eastbound and back. A great film.
Showing on Oct 5 10:30 am at International Village #8, Oct 7 7:00 pm International Village #10, Oct 8 2:00 pm International Village #10.