Monday, June 26, 2017

in transit + person to person

We need a little humanism in these polarizing times. Two quiet, poetic summer films--distinctly American ones--portray an array of characters with grace and without judgement.

In TransitAlbert Maysles' (co-directed by Lynn True, David UsuiNelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu) poetically-fitting final film, studies the lives of commuters, drifters, travelers and dreamers along the Empire Builder--America's busiest long-distance train route which runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. It begins modestly with flits of conversation, snatches of imagery dealing with the wonkish aspects of train-life (bunks, food prep, and ticket-taking) and the picaresque views of the passing countryside. Eventually the filmmakers establish more intimacy with their subjects--a pregnant woman en route to Minnesota to be with her family, a young woman born to crack addicts, a single mother with her bevy of children (she says, "she fits the stereotype"). There are more, who seem especially willing and, perhaps even eager, to have their stories captured on celluloid. And even though the film moves in and out of all kinds of tales, it feels tightly-focused within its fluid yet contained timeline. It also carries an emotional resonance in its depiction of our current era of separation and of an uncertain economy (we pass oil rigs, many of which employ the passengers on the train,  built upon once sacred landscapes).

Decades after Salesman and Grey Gardens, In Transit is another piece in an enriching oeuvre of documentaries. It may not break much ground artistically as many of Maysles' other works have, but it still feels like an accomplished, refreshing doc distinctive in a sea of quick-paced docs (and YouTube videos) in an era of cynical indies and sheepish, boring blockbusters. What burns through is a love for the quirky, the misfits and the down-on-luck. The camera and the shaping of the film through editing (brilliant work by True) and intertwining stories treats all within the work with compassion. A reminder how much the Maysles will be missed. ****

Person to Person reminded me somewhat of Wayne Wang's and Paul Auster's 1995 multi-character movie Smoke. Though not as sharply written or disarmingly deep as Auster's tales, Person to Person, a movie written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa, is comparable as lithe little New York comedy and a quiet gem. The cast (deftly selected by one of the masters of casting: Avy Kaufman), which includes as its most familiar faces Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson as bumbling NYC paper reporters and a rumpled Philip Baker Hall (almost emotionless--perhaps hardened from all he's seen) as a tinker, are all appealing. A true standout is the bright Tavi Gevinson with her pixie haircut and blunt voice delivering amusingly dry and quietly searing social commentary. The comic lines throughout land softly and the story-lines don't really move anywhere too surprising, it knows its limits and because of this, the film feels humble and warm. ***

-Jeffery Berg

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