' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...In Transit

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Some Drivel On...In Transit

Though “In Transit” is a documentary, not a drama, it still reminded me of Tom Quinn’s “Colewell” (2019) in how it intrinsically becomes a meditation on time and how its brief one hour and nineteen minute run time still seems to encapsulate a whole life. Or maybe that should be lives, plural, since its set entirely aboard the Empire Maker, the Amtrak train running from Chicago to Seattle and back again, over and over, on into forever. As the 2015 documentary credited to five directors (Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, Benjamin Wu) opens, we see a young kid, excitedly talking about having literally walked out on his job, taking his last paycheck and splitting, lighting out for greener pastures in the Pacific Northwest. He talks like someone’s who got it all figured out, in that way that youths do, and rather than wanting to scold him from my early 40s time zone, I smiled wistfully, remembering how good that feel, suspended in a moment where it felt like things were going to be different before they inevitably wound up the same. When this sequence ends, the camera looks out the back of the train, at the rails receding behind it before cutting to a shot looking out from the engine at the track coming up, visually evoking the train as a space in-between.

Through this light, the Empire Maker bisects beginnings and ends, the American Dream and the laughable futility of it. “In Transit”, mind you, is not mocking its subjects, not any of them, viewing the kids who form an impromptu “American Pie” singalong, like it’s the quad of some liberal arts campus, in a loving light. Even so, it is also not shy about calling such ideals on the carpet, like an older man late in the movie chastising some unseen youth opining about going snowboarding to get through a crossroads by explaining that is not a crossroads but a vacation, citing his own harsh life experience as a true crossroads. It’s as comical as it truthfully stinging and a truth the documentary is content to just let speak for itself as it is most every truth there, emblemizing the overriding approach. “In Transit” sees these various people in rhymes and echoes, going to and from the same place, feeling the same kind of emotions, just from their own vantage points, those feelings like variations in light.

The camera sees an older woman by herself, eating breakfast, and then cuts to her speaking to the camera, spilling her life story. If, for a moment, you thought she might have had nothing to say, she does, evoking how every person we see in these sports of spaces - a train, a plane, a bus - is sitting on his or her own life’s tale, if only we’d think to ask. Likewise, an older gentleman works as both a sounding board and a semi-guidance counselor to a younger black woman. It is only after she gets off the train that we then hear him tell us what he is about, underling how he generously gives her space to sound off.

We hear announcements of where the train is stopping but we are deliberately unmoored from a linear journey, just seeming to jump in and out, mornings, noons and nights, sunrises and sunsets, all blurring together, just a collection of stolen moments, underscored in how we glimpse people between half-opened doorways. Yet even as time seems to fall away, “In Transit” quietly shapes a narrative, one beginning with people who are trying their luck somewhere new and ending with people who are returning to the places where they are from. Reality always beckons again.

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