Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Journey Is the Reward: In Transit (2015)

A mother and daughter in Albert Maysles's In Transit (2015).

For one glorious week, the last film by documentarian and pioneer of direct cinema Albert Maysles, the posthumously released In Transit (2015), was free to watch online. In a fine bit of irony, it was Maysles’s death that threw the film’s distribution into limbo. Co-directed with Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu (everyone also shared cinematography duties, except True, who edited), the film boards the Chicago-St. Paul/Minneapolis-Spokane-Portland/Seattle Empire Builder, the busiest cross-country train in the U.S., in search of passengers’ stories. You think you know where this is going (sorry), and you do – but knowing is one thing, experiencing another.

When you think about it, a long-haul passenger train is as close to a perfect space to explore as one could think of; recent Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho built all of Snowpiercer (Seolgungnyeolcha, 2013) on this insight. Everyone who boards a passenger train has a reason to be there, be it to get somewhere or to escape somewhere, and behind each reason is a story. The film features a few remarkable ones that are tragic, poignant, redemptive, humorous, lovestruck, and aspirational, sometimes at the same time. With no titles to introduce them and a fully immersive soundtrack without subtitles, it feels like each of these people is talking directly and exclusively to you, a fellow passenger who will soon inevitably disembark. The filmmakers’ interviewing style, based on the evidence since we never see or hear them, is compassionately patient, and their subjects respond in kind.

The setting also puts these people, of widely variegated backgrounds, together for possibly days on end, and beyond their sharing of stories, the juxtaposition of worldviews can be fascinating to witness. A middle-aged black man meets a sage elder who offers some deeply felt life counseling. A young man asks to join a group of singing twentysomethings because he’s “mad bored,” and we get to see him make friends in real time. Sometimes the juxtaposition happens through the magic of editing: the train passes through the oil fields of North Dakota, at the time going through a boom, and we alternately meet young men heading out to strike their fortunes, and slightly less-young men returning home to rest who are not entirely satisfied with what fortune they struck.

Throughout, True’s editing is fleet and instinctive, drawing connections across time and between trips to build a real sense of community despite the transient people and location. People in the background of early shots often have their own turn before a camera later in the film, often to a big emotional payoff. We hear a lot of talk among passengers and crew about a pregnant young lady who was already three days overdue when she boarded, heading home to give birth surrounded by family and friends; this creates a sense of unforced and non-manipulative tension, and when we finally meet her about halfway through this 75-minute film, she’s not who or what we expect. But the biggest payoff of this narrative throughline is found when the man she often chats with is himself interviewed near the end.

The Empire Builder gifts the film with an exemplary location, interesting characters, and a sense of limitless narrative possibility, but it also provides something that perhaps only the Empire Builder could: in the background, a visual journey through the northern hinterlands of America. Mountain, plain, forest, oil field, snowy city, lakeside homes on stilts – the film truly gives a spectacular sense of the gorgeous natural beauty that exists in the United States and that is often taken for granted, acknowledged only in an abstract, intellectual way, especially, perhaps, by city-dwellers, many of whom are currently under lockdown. The invention of the steam locomotive transformed people’s conceptions of space and time due to the speed at which distance could be covered; that sense of disorientation is captured here as sublime natural formations such as snow-covered mountains move past the windows of the observation car at surprising speeds – alarming speeds, even, as one is prevented from engaging in lengthier contemplations.

In a way that few non-allegorical films, let alone fly-on-the-wall documentaries, can, In Transit presents us with a microcosm of civilization. Or rather, the Empire Builder itself is the microcosm, and it’s small enough that half a dozen people wielding four cameras can capture it on film and convey it to us in a mere hour and fifteen minutes. The film arose from an even less-structured passion project of Maysles’s, and his filmmaking genius will continue to be – as it has been – missed.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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