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The Cruise

Review by Eddie Cockrell
       
Posted 30 October 1998

  Directed, photographed and produced by Bennett Miller

Starring Timothy "Speed" Levitch

Guess you have to either live there -- Manhattan, to be precise -- or be an intrepid tourist braced for the kind of walking cliche personified in the peculiar charms of Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the neurotically encyclopedic 32-year-old Gray Line tour guide whose musings are at the heart of director Bennett Miller's lyrical and meticulously-edited debut, in order to appreciate the elusive charms of this grating documentary. How else to explain its presence in theatrical release, a 76-minute black and white monologue blown up to a flat and fuzzy 35mm from 100-plus hours of tape shot with the miniDV VX-1000 "prosumer" (professional meets consumer) camera? Seldom rising above the level of uncomfortable novelty, The Cruise seems more sad than illuminating, a cruel example in both technology and subject of the downside to personal filmmaking.

Little is revealed about the prissy Levitch in the course of the film, although a biography enclosed with the presskit reveals that he was born in 1970 at Mt. Sinai Hospital and grew up in the Riverside section of the Bronx. As an undergraduate at New York University he had an internship as an editorial proofreader for Penthouse before getting his tour guide license in 1992. Apparently "without a home," says Miller, "though he finds more and more couches available to him," Levitch is also, according to the material, a prolific playwright, with some 40 works to his credit ("that to this day nobody has read," Miller adds).

With a brief to find "beauty in all things" he refers to as "cruising," Levitch's odes to various landmarks, artists and even building materials has a certain novelty value at first -- in truth, you've probably never seen a tour guide like this in your life -- but his skewed database and unusual delivery mask a greater capacity for darkness than the film seems willing to reveal, or at least dwell on. This sinister side comes across perhaps most eloquently in a sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge, which begins innocently enough ("the pillars of stone were my friends") before devolving into an emotional damnation of various friends and family members who've wronged him in some way. At this moment Levitch is transformed from innocent kvetch, serene in his verbose psychosis, to wild-haired demon, a vessel of rage and pain in need of help, not media exposure.

Described with an apparently straight face as "Shine meets Slacker" by distributor Artisan Entertainment, The Cruise might be unendurable if not for Miller's delicate glimpses of the city and basic compassion for Levitch. "Hanging out with Speed made me feel a particular way," the NYU film school dropout, who met his subject through his brother in 1994, told indieWIRE. "I found something extraordinary in him. And I think Speed will attest to this, that most human beings before the film did not give him the same credit. There was a lot of quicker judgment of him and it required some looking in to. It required some patience and sensitivity and interest and curiosity to appreciate, because he's fucking unusual." There you have it, the essential tension of the film in one quote: at once a documentation of the peculiar demons that possess Levitch (and may make him famous) and the chaotic serenity of the city that creates/encourages/crushes such individuality, The Cruise can never quite get past the distasteful tang of exploitation. For every person who connects with Speed's meditations on solitude and art, what do you bet there are two others who find the whole thing uncomfortably voyeuristic?

Nevertheless, The Cruise has picked up a lot of steam on the festival circuit and is riding the trendy wave generated by Artisan's previous release, the well-recieved Pi (distributor rep John Hegeman even confessed a similar word-of-mouth strategy to indieWire, indicating that they'll let the film "become sort of a destination for people, almost sort of how you open up a hot downtown club").

At the first Newport Film Festival not long ago, Levitch accepted the audience award won by The Cruise and dedicated it to Edith Wharton, "who spent a lot of time trying to get respect in this town." Unlike the writer, the tour guide's notoriety seems destined to be more regional, and this movie's fame -- real or manufactured -- decidedly more fleeting.


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