Aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder, a passenger train that travels between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest, we capture sight of an elderly man with a digital camera in tow. He reflects on the images he captured on his DSLR, including one of a young passenger: a pregnant woman who’s four days overdue and taking the train to meet with friends. The photo is a candid one as she leaves the train and makes her way down an icy path that leads to the terminal. Solemnly, the man comments that to cameras that he’s ill and doesn’t have much time, that he doesn’t want to die without having a good look at the world. It’s to Albert Maysles’ credit that what we have in In Transit (Recommended) is a clear-eyed, optimistic, and sincere look at American life.
What happens to the man, the pregnant woman, or any of the commuters we encounter aboard the Empire Builder is a mystery. What we do know is that Maysles passed away shortly before In Transit was first screened in 2015. The director, a totem of documentary filmmaking alongside his brother David, started in the 50s and long spoke of composing a documentary entirely based on his interactions with people on the train. Garnering financing for such an effort is, as you imagine, unimaginable. But after a lengthy legal battle that prevented the film from screening for nearly two years, the film finally makes its way to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center for an exclusive run.
It’s a lovely coincidence that Maysles’ film screens just a week before Frederick Wiseman’s new film, Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, premieres at the Siskel, as the two filmmakers complement one another in distinct ways. While Wiseman is content in observing the social order uninterrupted, so often capturing subjects at their most fraught and fragile, Maysles offers a conciliatory ear for which he allows his subjects to confess their concerns. As Wiseman yearns to be an unseen microscopic object, Maysles makes no effort to conceal the eye of his camera, instead offering it as a platform for his subject to grapple with their own existential plights. And for a film that speaks to the probing questions of where we’re going and how we’re getting there, this platform becomes vital in imbuing the film with a tactile warmth and humanity. The brief passages we have with various passengers of the Empire Builder offers moments that are equal parts beguiling as they are heart-wrenching. From a mother discussing how her daughter, who she had not seen for decades, urged her to take on a more youthful look, to a young man finding himself in love for the first time, Maysles suggests that what may be most “natural” is to speak from the heart. It’s a different approach from Wiseman’s more cerebral approach, but no less effective in capturing what it means to be a human.