Early on in The Cruise, the 1998 documentary that would vaunt him into a state of quasi-celebrity, Gray Line tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch clues the audience in to the way he thinks about the city that he daily informs crowds of baffled out-of-towners about. “New York City is a living organism; It evolves, it devolves, it fluctuates as a living organism,” Levitch explains. “So my relationship with New York City is as vitriolic as the relationship with myself and with any other human being which means that it changes every millisecond, that it’s in constant fluctuation. This winter I really felt like we were getting a divorce…I’m just glad that it’s not quite as angry with me right now.”
This is the form of Levitch’s illuminating, interesting lunacy, personifying the city to such an extent that he often consults buildings, lingers with cornices, and imagines the sexual prowess of certain terracotta facades. Levitch, in his trademark nasal tones, is a kind of traveling philosopher-clown, giving his double-decker audiences more than they bargained for. Dressed in loud blazers with frayed lining and reflective aviators, his unkempt curly hair blown askew by the breeze, Levitch bleats out facts and observations rapidfire into the bus PA system. These performances are mixed with a kind of awe and angst at the city around him, a place that seems to be in cahoots to either welcome him into its embrace or expell him entirely. Like: “If architecture is the history of phallic emotion, the Empire State Building is utter catharsis, and we are sitting in its silhouette.” Like: “May I re-state, recapitulate, and generally regurgitate, when you are sitting in the middle of midtown Manhattan, you are sitting amongst a 20th Century invention, a city that grew up in an explosion, as an explosion. It is an explosion, an experiment, a system of test tubes gurgling, boiling, out of control, radioactive atoms swirling. Civilization has never looked like this before. This is ludicrousness and this cannot last.”
You get the picture. Rants like those (and especially one where Levitch rails against the tyranny of the grid plan, forcing us all into walking in right angles) made Levitch into a cult figure of sorts after The Cruise came out. The documentary was director Bennett Miller’s first film (he now has big league titles Moneyball, Capote, and Foxcatcher to his name), and at its core, it’s a loving portrait of a certain recognizable type: The Urban Eccentric. You probably know one in your own life, perhaps not as effusive as Levitch, but certainly caught somewhere between the poles of insanity and genius. They are the people that, as 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy wisely advised, you never follow to a second location. But Miller does, and with a careful eye for editing down Levitch’s rambles into more palatable chunks, transforms Levitch from street preacher to cult hero. One of the great things about the film is that your perspective on Levitch is constantly changing.
The Cruise takes its title from Levitch’s personal life philosophy, in which we are all, simultaneously engaged in “the cruise.” What is it, exactly? What “the cruise” means to Levitch seems to be leading a particular kind of life, one that’s always moving towards fulfillment and beauty and fighting the forces of conformity and homogenization. It’s also poised against “the anti-cruise”: paralysis, corporate blandness, and his grandparents’ expectations. At one point Levitch, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge with a copy of Leaves of Grass, launches into a particularly epic tirade about his enemies. (“To Josh: Your narcissism is mediocre.”)
“You see maybe one quarter to one third of the whole rant,” Miller said when he appeared at the IFC Center on Tuesday night with This American Life host Ira Glass to talk about The Cruise. (The event, hosted by SundanceNow Doc Club, is part of a series curated by Glass.) “The actual rant is a whole short film.” Miller, who knew Levitch through his younger brother, had actually started filming Levitch the summer before the footage seen in The Cruise. He had accumulated 77 hours of footage and decided to scrap it all. He started again, trying to poke holes in Levitch’s schtick, to get at the glimmers of person rather than persona that appear in the film. Miller credits the final result to “attrition,” but it sounded something more like persistance and fascination. (One tidbit for fans: Levitch would make up the height of the Empire State Building during each of his loops. On days that he was feeling better about himself, he would estimate it to be taller.)
Miller didn’t seem eager to discuss his time with Levitch in great detail despite Glass’ expert inquiries; perhaps his new release was weighing heavily on his mind. Though it was good to have Miller’s perspective on Levitch, and a few questions answered (Levitch was 25 when The Cruise was filmed, despite appearing to be anywhere between 30 and 40-something), there is no doubt that The Cruise now has a life of its own, an identity wholely independent from its creator. Moments in the film now are unexpectedly heartbreaking: Levitch’s habit of spinning in circles in World Trade Center Plaza and then lying on the ground so that the twin towers appeared to fall in on him was whimsical and wistful in 1998, now it seems oddly prescient and tragic.
But what The Cruise accomplishes so beautifully is not just capturing a character, but a coping mechanism, the strategies that young New Yorkers develop to staying in a city that’s changing so rapidly it can be hard to find a foothold. The first time I saw The Cruise as a teenager, I had only visited New York a few times; Levitch’s spouting seemed cool, profound, and interesting in the way that a lot of things seem cool, profound, and interesting as a teenager, vaguely connected to grandiose theories of the rebellious unique few raging against the boring, distant masses of adulthood.
When I saw The Cruise again last night, as someone who has lived in New York City for a decade, he struck me as a person who was a more concentrated version of many people I know, or at least a version of them. New York City is an environment that both draws in creative people and systematically crushes them. You come here open to the imposing landscape, the sheer possibilities, but you can’t stay that wide-eyed and enrapt without doing yourself an injury. Sooner or later New York is just where you live with all its attendant inconveniences and expenses, not a playground of metropolitan treasures. In order to live here, you have to develop sharp elbows and intricate armor. Levitch’s whole job is to strip away that protective gear, to impress people with the enormity of the place. He has to stay open, to some extent. And that is maybe the whole trick of living here, to keep a little bit of yourself open. To, every once in a while, stand on a corner in Greenwich Village, and let yourself be overwhelmed by just how much has gone on in a small patch of a city. To understand how unlikely this particular confluence of things is; how extrordinary that it exists now. To be on 7th Avenue and think, not just of your next location, but where you are:
Six blocks from the Provincetown Playhouse where Eugene O’Neill begins his early playwriting career. Six blocks from where Henry Miller decides he hates New York City forever and moves to Paris. Two blocks from where Willa Cather lives. Three blocks from where e.e. cummings lives. Three blocks from where Sherwood Anderson lives. Four blocks from where H.L. Mencken lives. Four blocks from where Theodore Dreiser lives. Five blocks from where Nathanael West lives. Five blocks from where D.H. Lawrence lives…lasciviously.
At the end of the Q&A, Miller noted that Levitch, who now lives in Kansas City, would be returning to New York City to give tours. Those interested should give their email to an assistant outside. The line to sign up wound half-way around the theater.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.