Albert Maysles’ lovely last film, “In Transit,” takes him on a three-day cross-country train ride from Chicago to Seattle aboard the Empire Builder. Along the way, something in the nature of the train or the trip lends the picture a whimsically philosophical slant, as many people take the silver conveyance to contemplate a life-changing decision or to implement one; for others, it fosters confessions and thoughtful intimacy. Sampling snippets and snatches of lives and conversations, Maysles and his fellow filmmakers undertake a folk odyssey through northern landscapes that proves a fitting farewell to an American ethnographer.
Odd friendships form in the alternation of night and day, and within the undemanding, casual proximity of those sharing an enclosed environment, hurtling through space. An extremely pregnant young woman, regarded by the crew with the wariness usually reserved for time bombs, is befriended by an elderly, picture-snapping ex-Marine. His interest and amicable questions take her mind off her anxieties while he presents her with snapshots to show her child how she looked just prior to giving birth. Meanwhile a codependent mother and daughter cuddle as they assure each other of their love and self-sufficiency.
The train’s passage through the oil fields of North Dakota heralds the arrival of a different type of traveler, similar to those drawn to the gold rush a century and a half ago. One rather naive youngster speaks confidently of earning enough money in seven years to set himself up for life. Another young man is returning with trepidation to the high-school sweetheart he hasn’t seen in six years.
Many seek to reconcile with the past. A single mother, the “black sheep of the family” with four interracial children from different fathers, hopes to create a deeper rapport with her own dad beyond offhand acceptance. A woman who gave her children up for adoption to save them from an abusive husband is returning from a highly satisfactory reunion with a daughter she hadn’t seen in 26 years.
Still others are bent on change. A woman recounts feeling stifled by her marriage and taking the train to find the courage not to return to a dead-end relationship. A young man tells how he quit his old job without informing his know-it-all boss, and left his Mississippi hometown without a backward glance to try his luck in Seattle; the young lady he’s talking to admits to relocating frequently herself, any change seeming better than stagnation.
A conductor speaks of having watched the silver bullet pass through town and dreaming of one day riding on it, his current position truly being the fulfillment of that dream. And a smiling woman who reckons that by all accounts she should be dead, having been raised by crack-addicted parents, shares her faith in following her impulses to lead her where she needs to go.
Snow-covered mountains and plains visible from the train window — and exterior shots of the sleek locomotive from various angles, traversing trestles or rushing straight ahead — only emphasize the coziness within, enlivened by mischievous kids, guitar- and card-playing passengers and a general sense of suspended time as a broad range of Americans weigh their options. After decades of documenting the various classes, vocations, lifestyles and habitats that constitute the crazy quilt of America, Maysles presents, in the range and diversity of “In Transit,” a retrospective reminder of his groundbreaking work as seminal maestro of the nonfiction form.