Review: In Transit

Albert Maysles, famed documentarian and beloved cinematic friend to all, passed away earlier this year at the ripened age of eighty-eight. He, along with his brother David (1931 - 1987), sought out uncommon character and strange circumstance within their work, developing a myriad of delightful and rare documentaries that are still treasured today. I remember watching Grey Gardens for the first time and gazing up at the theatre screen in awe of the life I was witnessing, in all of its honest nonsense. Albert Maysles was the one to capture those moments, and since then I have been equally in awe of his sincerity with the camera.

This year, the Vancouver International Film Festival had the pleasure of screening one of Maysles’ last films, a work on which he collaborated with several other filmmakers (Lynn True, Nelson Walker, David Usui and Ben Wu). The film finds its subject in the Empire Builder, America’s most frequented long-distance train route, stretching from Chicago to Portland and Seattle, a journey which takes approximately three days. The camera’s role is observational, typical of a Maysles production, and it captures intimate conversation and solitude alike. Passengers on the train pour their hearts out into the lens, and we become witness to all manner of departure and arrival.

David and Albert Maysles. Photo: John Sotomayo

David and Albert Maysles. Photo: John Sotomayo

Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this film as much as I had wanted to. Though I found the train as subject to be fascinating, it was generally difficult to immerse myself in the stories of the people on board. The vision of the film was supposedly objective, but the moments captured by the camera were often cheesy and clichéd, which seems like a very cynical thing to say about actual lived experience, but I could not make myself feel differently. One woman revealed her struggle with being a single mom, another explained that the train was her break from an ex-husband, and a mother and daughter exchanged words about their dreams of arrival and feeling that the destination would be a new start.

Sometimes I felt as though these testimonies and exchanges were written especially for the camera and that their candid nature had been erased. If it had all been scripted, I would have cringed in my seat. What I would have liked to have experienced further was the thematic presence of the train as destination in itself, a kind of temporary space in which to ponder what came before and what will come next. Cinematic representations of trains are usually limited to the symbolic. They are used as devices to signify a character or narrative’s transformation, the start of something new or the leaving behind of old. With In Transit, the train became the definite location. Yes, it did symbolize coming and going, and held transformative qualities for some of its riders, but more so than that it became a real place. A self-contained habitat for all manner of folk passing through. I guessed that perhaps the characters aboard the train were intended to be the humanity of the film, but I wanted to explore that of the train instead. I was intrigued by its omniscient personality and acceptance of those who travelled along its route, and by the pattern of existence which only the train could produce. Oh, well. I may have been underwhelmed, but Albert still holds an honoured place in my heart.