William Blake wrote of the poet’s ambition to “see the world in a grain of sand,” and once the late Albert Maysles and his brother David began making documentaries in 1964, it was a tacit credo of theirs to observe the world’s many grains of sand without sifting them one way or the other. In Transit was in production when Albert passed away in 2015, and it’s the perfect film to close his invaluable career. Rather than focusing on one subject, as in Gimme Shelter (1970), Grey Gardens (1976) or the more recent Iris (2014), In Transit gives a voice to dozens of subjects, all of them ordinary people, and the only thing that binds them is their shared passage on Amtrak’s Empire Builder train. As the subjects travel between Chicago and Seattle, they share life moments, and In Transit comes to encapsulate the vision behind Maysles’ entire career.
Trains make excellent settings for films, and Maysles’ decision to shoot a documentary on one is telling. It allows him to broaden his scope and narrow it, too, sharing more stories while condensing each to a shorter period of time. And yet, as Maysles proves, a glimpse is sometimes all you need. Through their clothing, mannerisms and the anecdotes they choose to tell, each person in the film manages to make a lifetime known.
It’s hard to choose which passengers to write about because each one forms such a seamless part of the film’s microcosm. There’s the wrinkled woman who shares her late-in-life tattoos, the middle-aged man who won’t stop taking pictures out the window, the father and son playing cards, the wife/mother traveling solo and feeling freed from her domestic responsibilities for the first time in years. The standout would have to be the pregnant teenager on her way to St. Paul, Minnesota, trudging slowly down the aisle in skintight pants, three days overdue. She wasn’t technically supposed to get on board, but the conductor doesn’t have the conscience to kick her off. He meets with his coworkers over pizza, and a ticket-taker proudly declares that if the baby comes, she’ll get a bucket of hot water and some towels, and it’ll all be okay. She’s joking, of course, but there’s a seed of truth. In the hands of these veteran employees, the girl really will be all right.
The politics of In Transit are predominantly economic. Most of the passengers are travelling for the sake of work, unhappy with the jobs they have and moving in search of a better one. One group of young men speaks openly (and drunkenly) about their work on the country’s isolated oil fields. They’ve sacrificed their youth and relationships, and now some of them are questioning their choices while others are determined to keep their heads down. They want the payoff.
In Transit is also about how we relate to one another. The daughters, friends, students, fathers, sons, wives and high school sweethearts show the many ways humans can form bonds with one another. The film is also full of mini life lessons, as when one single mother with four kids finds out that her youngest lost a shoe. She stays calm, sending the older girl off to look for it. When she comes back empty-handed, the mother is disappointed but not upset. It’s a quiet lesson in not sweating the small stuff.
The only downside to sampling so many stories is that it precludes specific explorations. Matters of race, class, gender, motherhood, privilege, sexuality and sickness are mentioned throughout, but none are opened up for rigorous questioning. The circumstances of the production simply didn’t allow it. Perhaps it’s a reminder of Maysles’ journalistic ethics that his crew did not go digging for lurid details. The passengers share what they wish to share and the producers did their best selecting them, though a few could have been cut. Some passengers babble postcard truisms like, “I know I’m going where I’m supposed to be going, but I don’t know what awaits me,” only to disappear.
As a portrait of Maysles himself, In Transit proves that looking out is a way of looking in. It’s worth noting that many of the subjects interviewed in the film are often later shown interviewing each other, as if taking on the role of documentarians themselves. One six year-old boy sits with a young man and asks, “What’s your name? Where’d you get those tattoos?” In this brief scene, the film seems to be curious about curiosity. We spend so much of our lives flying past each other. It takes an experience like riding a cross-country train to take us out of our shells and prompt unlikely conversations.
In Transit attests to the possibility of human connection and serves as a reminder to the insights Albert Maysles has given us over the last 50 years. As one passenger says, “There is a spark in the human spirit that is not to be snuffed out.” He speaks for himself — and for Albert.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a fiction writer and film critic. She lives in Brooklyn.