Riding the rails on Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route
Albert Maysles (1926-2015) was one of the great figures in documentary filmmaking. With his brother, David, he made three legendary documentaries: “Salesman,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Grey Gardens.” “In Transit,” his last film, is a worthy successor. Maysles made it with co-directors Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, and Benjamin Wu.
The documentary looks at the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance train. Its route goes from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest. The journey takes three days, and “In Transit” is just as unhurried. It’s also hypnotic and deeply engaging.
Usually, we stay inside the train, with passengers and crew — people, not technology or landscape, is the film’s focus — but there are occasional cutaways to the train passing by or views out the window. Some of the latter are what you might expect. “Mom, we’re in Montana?” a little boy asks. “The mountains are huge.” Near Seattle, we glimpse Mount Rainier and fog-shrouded firs. In the Dakotas, snow-covered plains go on and on. But there are also sights like a distant McDonald’s sign, its Golden Arches glowing in the night.
We never learn where that sign might be. The film keeps no strict itinerary, switching between several trains, jumping around on the journey. There’s no voice-over to explain or maps to follow. Yet “In Transit” isn’t quite cinema verite. Passengers and crew are clearly talking to whoever’s behind the camera. Not that there’s anything self-aware or theatrical about the interviews.
Few things lower barriers like taking a long train ride, and among the many pleasures the film has to offer is a sense of mini-community among those on board — and those of us watching them. “There was this big silver thing that went through town every day,” says a conductor who grew up in Rugby, N.D., one of the Empire Builder stops. “And it just, just was amazing to me that there were all these people going some places I hadn’t been.” When he says of his job, “This is the only job I’ve ever wanted,” it makes perfect sense.
People sleep. People eat. “Free steak for everyone?” a passenger teases a conductor. “Free steak and lobster!” he grins back. Actually, the food in the dining car looks pretty good. People play cards. A woman strings extremely tiny beads. Someone plays a ukulele. Someone else plays a guitar, and there’s a singalong to “Brown-Eyed Girl.” People in the observation car stare out the window, and people throughout the train stare at their phones.
Mostly people talk. Lovely to look at, “In Transit” is even better to listen to. The documentary tells us straightaway that what we hear matters just as much as what we see. It begins with a blank screen and the sound of rumbling trains and air horns. Soon enough, conversation takes over. We hear a woman describe being reunited with the birth daughter she hasn’t seen in 47 years — and show off the tattoo she got at her daughter’s urging. An Amtrak employee admits, “My baby-delivering skills are kind of rusty” (a woman on the train is three days past her due date). “I don’t really want to get off the train,” a woman says as the Empire Builder heads into Seattle. “I mean, it’s been more than just a means of travel to get from one place to another.” Yes, it has.
★ ★ ★
Directed by Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, Benjamin Wu. At Brattle. 76 minutes. Unrated.