Harlem’s Albert Maysles Was Obsessed With Being In Transit On Amtrak

June 23, 2017

The NY Post reports that long into his 80s, Albert Maysles always preferred buses and trains to taxis.

“He hated spending money on cabs,” says the “Gimme Shelter” filmmaker’s daughter Rebekah Maysles. “I think he liked taking buses and trains because he could talk to people. He got a lot of pleasure out of that.”


In 2015, shortly before his death at 88 — having outlived his younger brother and collaborator, David, by 28 years — Maysles (pronounced “may-zills”) finished his final film, “In Transit.” Shot aboard Amtrak’s Empire Builder train as it chugs between Chicago and Seattle, it focuses on ordinary Americans and their fears and dreams about where it is they’re going.

Maysles saw the final cut before he died, but the documentary’s rarely been shown since — until now, when it screens at the Maysles Cinema in Harlem.

“It became one of those films that got lost in the shuffle,” says Rebekah. “It’s a shame, because it’s such a beautiful film.”

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Rebekah, 40, oversees the Maysles Documentary Center, which, home to both the cinema and her father’s archives, is in Harlem, where her family has lived for nearly 20 years. Before that, she and her siblings had what she calls “a hectic childhood” in the Upper West Side’s Dakota, “with lots of people coming in and out.” One of them was Sean Lennon, the son of her father’s friends, John and Yoko.

Back in 1964, the Maysles brothers filmed the Beatles’ first visit to America, “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA.” They focused often on celebrities — the Rolling Stones, Truman Capote, Marlon Brando — and the eccentric, like the Beale mother-daughter duo of “Grey Gardens.”

But her father’s favorite film, she says, was the antithesis of stardom: It was 1969’s “Salesman,” about four men who went door-to-door selling Bibles.

“‘Salesman’ reminded my father of his father,” Rebekah says. “He worked in a dead-end job, but wanted to do so many things in his life.”

One thing Albert longed to do, according to Rebekah, was follow people on a train. “He’d been talking about ‘In Transit’ ever since I’ve been around,” she says. “He just didn’t know how to fund it.”

He finally found a sponsor in Al Jazeera America, the now-defunct cable channel that wanted to make a TV film about the American dream. The next hurdle was getting Amtrak’s permission to film aboard its train, whose fares for the three-day Chicago-to-Seattle trip run around $300.

Maysles and his crew didn’t have to pay for their tickets to ride. “But if he did,” Rebekah adds with a laugh, “he’d definitely try to get the senior discount!”

“In Transit” screens at the Maysles Cinema and the Metrograph; InTransitFilm.com

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