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Cruise Control

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On Top of New York City: A Manhattan double-decker tour bus guide is determined to awaken the hordes of tourists who board his bus to the beauty and drama of the Big Apple in the documentary 'The Cruise.'

Bennett Miller and 'Speed' Levitch take Manhattan

By Simone Stein

There are few less commercially viable movie concepts than the one behind The Cruise--a black-and-white documentary about a Manhattan double-decker tour bus guide. Happily, director Bennett Miller "momentarily abandoned all practical thinking" and made it anyway, sure that others would come to see the poetry and profundity in his subject, the neurotic, free-associating genius lunatic Timothy "Speed" Levitch and his passionate devotion to the "bitch goddess" Manhattan. The Cruise is a beautifully shot travelogue that foregrounds the sublime charms of New York City in much the way that Woody Allen films do. Levitch, 28, even has some of the more exaggerated elements of Allen's persona--he's a frizzy-haired nebbish with a high nasal voice that makes Fran Drescher sound like Kathleen Turner. But there's an Allen Ginsberg aspect to Levitch's rambling tragicomic fugues about New York's architecture, history and literary life--that is, if Ginsberg had lived in ridiculous obscurity instead of generational adulation.

An aspiring playwright, Levitch is heroically unaware of what most people would perceive as the triviality of his job. He's determined to awaken the hordes of foreign tourists and portly Midwesterners who board his double-decker bus to the beauty and drama that are everywhere in New York City. He's exquisitely appreciative of architecture, falling into raptures over a particular piece of terra cotta. When the bus holds up traffic, he exhorts his passengers to "sense the grandeur of your power as we disrupt one life after another." He offers advice on "how to be a debonair individual despite internal feelings of despair." At one particularly chaotic intersection, he rails about the explosive craziness of Manhattan: "Civilization has never looked like this before. This is ludicrousness and this cannot last." Then, without skipping a beat, "The new Ann Taylor store on your right."

The film makes it impossible to tell whether Levitch is delusional, enlightened or both. Out of an utterly ordinary life, Levitch wrings mythic significance. The city is "a Cyclops, a scintillating streamlined mermaid who sings to me at night." About rival tour bus companies Apple and Gray Line, he says, "Spartacus, Brutus and his conspirators, they were Apple tour guides. Willie Wonka, he was Gray Line. Attila the Hun would have been a great Apple dispatcher, whereas Virgil would have worked for Gray Line."

In making a documentary about Levitch, Miller essentially concurs with Levitch's assessment that his life is extraordinary. And, indeed, it is--as extraordinary, at least, as that of most celebrities. We take for granted that filming a day in the life of Madonna is legitimate. By extending the same attention to Levitch for no other reason than that he's a fascinating person, Miller takes a small step toward subverting celebrity culture.


'Speed' Levitch on the City.


Ten or even five years ago, it's likely that The Cruise wouldn't have been made, since funding for such a project would have been almost impossible. But thanks to digital video, Miller didn't need a lot of money to make his movie. Miller shot The Cruise entirely by himself--no sound or lighting person, no production assistants. Now that The Cruise has gotten national theatrical distribution, it could open the gates to a flood of similarly cheaply made, utterly noncommercial films.

"I think a lot is made possible with these new digital cameras," says Miller, in town with Levitch to promote the film. "I think it's going to offer more potential and possibilities to documentary filmmakers, because these things are so small, they're so inconspicuous, they're so inexpensive and they're so mobile that they afford you a certain intimacy that was never possible before with the whole spectacle and weight and expense of shooting film. So I'm very much looking forward to seeing the kooky stuff that people produce over the next few years. If the avalanche has not begun, I do believe it's just a matter of time that people really begin to exploit the new technology toward more idiosyncratic, personalized expressions."

He continues, "There is no way to anticipate that a film as unusual and about as obscure a subject as this would actually catch on and be received with any sort of affection or support. But this just seemed like the kind of film I would like to have exist in the world."

Levitch is obviously relishing his sudden ironic ascension to quasi-celebrity. Sitting in the coffee shop of the Triton Hotel, he wears a burgundy velvet suit with elephant-leg pants, a busy black, orange and brown button-up shirt, tinted aviator glasses and a tiny plastic pumpkin on a string around his neck. "My affiliation with the moving image is like being reintroduced to my own life," he says. "And associating with movies is like meeting the 20th century face to face--I never thought I would, and it's nice to meet the 20th century right before it ceases to exist."

The Cruise (Unrated; 76 min), directed and photographed by Bennett Miller, starring Timothy "Speed" Levitch as himself, opens Wednesday, Nov. 25, at the Lumiere Theater, 1572 California St.; 415/352-0810.

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From the November 16-29, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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