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'In Transit'

For one of his final movies, direct cinema pioneer Albert Maysles rode the Empire Builder to document the everyday passengers riding from Chicago to Seattle or Portland. “In Transit” screens on Sunday at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

In his 2008 book on the happiest and unhappiest countries in the world, writer Eric Weiner confesses that he's daydreamed about living in the transitory state of travel, which he nicknames "Airport World."

"I would just keep flying around the world, in a state of suspended aviation. Always coming, never arriving."

"In transit," he writes. "If two sweeter words exist in the English language, I have yet to hear them. Suspended between coming and going, neither here nor there, my mind slows."

A nameless character who's having marital troubles says something similar in Albert Maysles' cinema verite documentary, "In Transit."

She hasn't yet reached her destination, yet she says she wishes she could never get off the train.

Maysles' film is a portrait of everyday riders like her on the Empire Builder, which runs from Chicago to Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and farther west to Seattle and Portland, Oregon.

It's not a tribute to train travel, or even concerned with the history of the line's westward expansion.

The film, devoid of narration, a score or a plot, instead gathers observations about the anonymous people on board, a time when their hopes are most charged and their previous lives receding farther by the minute.

The minimal, observational style is one that Maysles and his brother David pioneered.

They directed "Gimme Shelter" (1970), which captured the Rolling Stones' disastrous free concert at Altamont in which Meredith Hunter, a black concert-goer, was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hells Angels, who were acting as security.

In 1975's "Grey Gardens," Maysles entered the eccentric world of the Beales, a wealthy mother and daughter who lived, seemingly happily, in a rotting mansion. More recently, he directed "Iris," about the fashion icon Iris Apfel. "In Transit," with its muted but humanistic tone, will act as his swan song – he died last March at age 88 during post-production on the film.


Maysles and his crew elicit remarkable confessions and stories from their fellow travelers, who are never identified by name or hometown. Like a fellow passenger, we drop in and out of their anecdotes and never know what becomes of them. Their often brief interactions form a rhythm that takes the place of a story arc.

The cinematography finds beauty in the mountains and desolate plains, or in something as a simple as the looping repetition of electrical lines set against a clear sky, or two passengers snapping pictures of their colorful matching socks.

Without the use of narration, Maysles and company find ways to introduce class issues. One young man wants to work in the Bakken oil fields for seven years and then do whatever he likes (he doesn't specify what). A Native man, meanwhile, says his dream is to own a couple of hundred acres free from the threat of oil development.

In one dose of truth-telling humor, a passenger says that his younger, well-off, college-age conversation companion isn't really at a crossroads – she's going snowboarding, after all. With some exasperation, he explains that when he was at a crossroads, he was robbing people for lunch.

After dark in a car to themselves, some younger white men discuss how being a white male in the United States is plenty of reason to "be stoked to be alive."


With the constant rhythm of the trains, much of the film passes before you'll notice there's no score. With so much stillness, any music might threaten to overwhelm the movie, and a fellow viewer noted that it would be difficult to create a score that meshed well with the clacking of the trains over the tracks.

An editing choice near the end compensates, though, as one traveler discusses how each person was created with a purpose in life, and injustice prevents them from achieving it. Nearby, Tupac Shakur's "Changes," another a song about struggle and obstacles, is heard on his younger companion's smartphone speakers, a massive beat cut down to a treble whisper. After all that quiet, it sounds as anthemic as ever.

The film, though, is like any long trip on public transit – it has moments when the solitude yields revelations, but just as often that can slip into monotony.

What it does best, as the title implies, is capture the common American hope and trepidation attached to travel: that movement of any kind can spur a change and a new beginning. That Maysles and company present all that information so clearly and simply, with empathy but no sentimentality, is the film's greatest achievement. 

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.