Don't Let This Slip Through the Cracks

One hesitates to talk about any film being Albert Maysles's last. The protean non-fiction filmmaker left behind a team of collaborators and many projects in various states of completion. But if the New York Times can call the marvelous 2015 film In Transit his final completed work, I won't argue. My only real concern is that at a modest 76 minutes this gentle, thoughtful film won't find an audience competing against the likes of Sofia Coppola and Michael Bay. Add to that the fact that it is only playing once a day at the Maysles Harlem-based documentary theater and there is a real danger of it disappearing without finding the audience it deserves.

In Transit, directed by Maysles along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, is brisk yet expansive.  Maysles and his co-directors follow the Empire Builder, American’s busiest long-distance train route as it goes between Chicago, Portland, OR, and Seattle and vice versa. 
This part of the Northern Plains States is being transformed by the oil boom in the Dakotas and the impact of that economic upturn is one of the central realities of the film. A pleasant 21-year-old says “I figure seven years in the oilfield I’ll be set for life.” The oil workers seem, on the whole, a likable if bibulous bunch and they blend in nicely with the train’s fascinating mix of working-class commuters, kids on college break and people seeking something more. There is a perky young woman, very pregnant and causing some worry for the train crew, who is heading home to Minneapolis, with the baby four days overdue, an older woman who has just been reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption nearly a half-century earlier, a church elder who knew Martin Luther King, who has a wonderfully calm and earnest talk with a troubled younger man, telling him, “You’re having this conversation on a train with somebody . . . so that you can have a conversation, perhaps on a train, with someone else who needs to talk.”

"Someone who needs to talk. . . . " A quiet moment from In Transit

Superficially, with its intercutting of the bleak but beautiful winterscape of the Great Plains and the gentle procession of day-into-night-into-day, the film looks like a cousin of one of Frederick Wiseman’s epic examinations of democratic institutions. But Wiseman takes a long view, placing his subjects in an expansive chronological framework even in his films that are set over a single day, giving his attention to the big-picture interaction of these people in a larger sociopolitical context. By contrast, Maysles and his collaborators are actually distilling the essence of the passing of time, focusing on intimate moments between strangers in a celebration of our mutual humanity. Wiseman and the Maysles brothers have always been two sides of the cinema-verité coin, complementing one another in their presentation of the richness of contemporary human experience. 

At a time when the people with their hands on the tools of power in America are apparently deadset on besmirching the nation's history and humanity in ways one would have thought impossible, In Transit performs a task whose value is incalculable. It reminds us of the basic decency of people, their hopes and dreams. Needless to say, that is something that all the Trumps and Ryans and McConnells can't squelch, despite their determination to do so.