Journeys, not Destinations in Albert Maysles’ Final Film
By Adam Cook
Albert and David Maysles were masters of the direct cinema school of documentary. With their fly-on-the-wall approach and keen eye for idiosyncratic details, they created some of the most memorable non-fiction films of all time, including classics Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. After David passed away in 1985, Albert soldiered on making movies into old age until 2015; he was 88. In the last few years of his life he spoke of his ambition to make a train movie in which he would simply ride trains and talk to people. It was the perfect setup for a documentary for Maysles: no context, no narrative, just normal people on trains. His passion for the project is a testament to his curiosity and love for people. The idea was simple, any person riding a train from one place to the next has a story to tell that’s worth hearing about.
Lynn True, Nelson Walker, Ben Wu and David Usui joined the project, eventually titled In Transit, as co-directors, in line with the project’s generous spirit. The team shot three round trips on Amtrak’s Empire Builder route, which connects Chicago with Portland and Seattle. Along the way they encounter a woman heading to home to reunite with her estranged family and make amends, a woman trying to outrace her pregnancy on the train, a young man moving to another place to be with the woman he loves.
People with haunted pasts and uncertain futures, people with high hopes, people with heavy consciences. They encounter enough intriguing drama, but it’s also the smaller moments where the sense of transience sinks in, and the train starts to gain metaphorical power and the film transcends its setting and setup. In a way, Maysles’ final film is one of the great “life is beautiful” films, a beautiful coda to a remarkable and affirming body of work.
Albert Maysles died a month before the film premiered to audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews. If there’s a message overall to take away from In Transit and indeed from all of the Maysles’ films, it’s this: talk and listen to one another, be open to meeting the people around you, and always keep your eyes and ears open, or else you’ll miss the stories happening all around us.
In Transit plays from August 11 – 17 at VIFF Vancity Theatre.