The late filmmaker followed Amtrak long-distance passengers dealing with both salvation and loss.
The great documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles has died at age 88. Maysles, who worked side by side with his late brother David for much of his career, was best known for Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. But if the descriptions and early glances are any indication, Maysles capped his career with another worthwhile effort—a film about train travelers called In Transit, recently selected to premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.
The film's promotional material promises "interconnected vignettes, ranging from overheard conversations to moments of deep intimacy, in which passengers share their fears, hopes and dreams." The action is set against the backdrop of Amtrak's long-distance Empire Builder. Here's more from the official site:
In the space between stations, where "real life" is suspended, there develops a peculiar atmosphere of contemplation and community. To some passengers, the train is flight and salvation, to others reckoning and loss. But for all, the train is a place for personal reflection and connecting with others they may otherwise never know.
During an interview with Index magazine from several years ago, conducted at the Harlem's 125th Street station, Maysles describes the subject of train travel as being integral to his childhood. He recalls heading off to the military via train in 1944 and looking out the window to see his family lined up on the platform to see him off. Their serious faces conveyed the communal concern that he might never come back. He continues:
"That image, and my inability to talk to them, has prevailed all through my life. So my train film is a kind of fulfillment of that experience."
If the final cut of In Transit, which Maysles co-directed with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui, and Ben Wu, only involves passengers on the Empire Builder, then the project seems to have narrowed in scope a bit. In the Index interview, Maysles outlines a plan to travel around the world in a number of different trains and tell stories of people he meets along the way. The video includes footage from a train in Russia that shows Maysles had already put this plan in action.
The scene begins at 3:15 with what looks to be a Russian family sitting in a train compartment. Two children look out the window at other passing trains while sitting beside a man and a woman the viewer takes to be their parents. But then the man tells a heartbreaking story about how their real father was an abusive drunk who had beaten their mother to death—and says the boys (who continue to be more fascinated by the trains outside than the tale inside) were now coming with them to be raised by their aunt.
Another scene set on Amtrak's Broadway Limited (beginning about 6:18), tells the far more uplifting story of a young woman traveling to see her mother for the first time in 23 years. Smoking cigarettes in the dining car beside her young son who's never met his grandmother, the woman talks about finally having "a mother-daughter relationship." When the train reaches Philadelphia, the camera follows her onto the platform as she looks around nervously, and finally as the two women embrace.
Maysles told Index he wanted to "bring the viewer close to the heart and soul of these people who would otherwise be strangers." If the stories that ultimately made the cut of In Transit are anything like the teaser scenes, he'll surely accomplish that. We'll let him get the final word; again, via the Index video:
"As Margaret Mead has said, in one of her lectures which I attended, 'we need more than anything to find common ground in other people.' And if there's a purpose to the film, that's it."