Built for Speed

Sitting near the window on the 50th floor of the IDS, Timothy "Speed" Levitch--part-time New York tour-bus guide and the blissed-out subject of The Cruise--is interpreting the geography of our twin towns with the same hippie joie de vivre he brings to bear on Manhattan. "This place is some sort of psychedelic dance with the river," Speed enthuses, his body swaying to the rhythm of his speech, his light lisp sounding sort of sensual as he slithers out each "s." "St. Paul and Minneapolis are divided by this spinal cord of the river, but the river is in this serpentine shape that twists in and out like a lambada dance." To illustrate, the 28-year-old Speed does a little twist himself--his lanky frame curling like a snake's, the curls of his long brown mane drooping over the red-tinted shades on his pimply face. (If Willy Wonka and one of the Monkees traded fashion tips while tripping on acid, the more influenced man might resemble Timothy "Speed" Levitch.)

Since The Cruise takes a ride on Speed's bus to chart the jarring and ingenious verbal detours of its tour guide, it's no surprise that the dude would be a trip in person. But as the topic changes for the umpteenth time in a half-hour interview (subjects include everything from "vicarious orgasms" to the theater of cruelty and "the majesty of the moving image"), it still appears odd that Levitch would have rising water on his mind when we're 50 floors up--or that this poster boy for low-budget documentary cinema would be discussing said flood in terms of Titanic. "For the entire last half of Titanic, I was in tears," Speed confesses with a giggle. "I think it's profound that, in the film, the only reason the Titanic is sinking is because intimacy has occurred. Joseph Campbell talks about water being a symbol of the unconscious. And in a sense, we're on the Titanic right now, all of us, sloshing around in the water with that evil aristocrat character. Give people 30 minutes to live and they'll still be arguing over territory."

The cultural turf mapped out in The Cruise is just as heady, with Levitch likening each loop of the bus to his own "continuous search for perfection," while interpreting Manhattan's perpendicular grid plan as a symbol of American conformity. ("To me," Speed says in the film, "the grid plan is puritan--it's homogenizing in a city where there is only total existence, total cacophony, a total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of awareness and consciousness and cruising," he says.) As the bus rolls through New York, the motormouthed Speed riffs stand-up-comedy-style on the history of the city and its architecture, giving landmark shout-outs to the former residences of such Big Apple artists as Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, and e.e. cummings. The film opens with the tour guide's gratingly off-key rendition of George Gershwin's "But Not for Me"--encouraging the viewer to debate (as in the local doc Driver 23) the question of what constitutes talent and success.

"I consider sexual rejection to be my mentor": Timothy "Speed" Levitch in The Cruise
"I consider sexual rejection to be my mentor": Timothy "Speed" Levitch in The Cruise

In other words: Might this lowly, nomadic, voluntarily homeless clock-puncher be the Walt Whitman of the late-20th century? To his credit, the Kansas-born, Bronx-bred Speed counts some 40-odd unpublished plays, a B.A. from NYU, and a seminal internship at Penthouse. (The Cruise's none-too-flattering press notes label him as "an eccentric young loner.") "When I encountered Speed," says Cruise director Bennett Miller, "I saw a person who was living his life very far outside the currents of mass culture, and that appealed to me." Ergo, Miller's bare-bones means of production suited his film's subject and theme: Working without a crew, the 31-year-old NYU film school dropout used a handheld digital-video camera to shoot some 100 hours of Speed in action, accruing only minimal expenses ("the camera, the tapes, and a few subway tokens," he says).

Notwithstanding The Cruise's pricey post-production, during which the tape was edited on an AVID system and blown up to 35mm, the $100,000 movie is still cheap by current indie standards. And yet Miller, who claims to have excelled at probability in school, dispels the theory that his tribute to an underground "artist" could similarly enable other low-budget auteurs to get recognized. "There are over 2,000 independent films made every year, less than 1 percent of them get distribution of any kind, and a far smaller percentage of those are documentaries," Miller says. "And I think that these [digital-video] cameras are only going to mean an even greater flooding of the marketplace, resulting in steeper competition on the distribution end. I can't say I'm optimistic about anybody's chances."

The ever-upbeat Speed begs to differ. "With one little digital camera, Bennett has experienced a very shamanic personal journey that has brought him into vast interconnectedness with the human race," Speed says, emphasizing the yin-yang dynamic of the straight-man filmmaker and his comic subject. Where the dour, preppy-looking Miller spends half the interview questioning the critic's questions before clamming up and doodling on a notepad like a petulant kindergartner, Speed makes like a rose in full bloom, colorfully expounding on his flower-child approach to personal growth. "The whole idea of 'the cruise,'" Speed says of his philosophy, "is simply understanding that living is the art of crafting moments in an ongoing collaboration with time and space. Each one of us, at the end of the day, has an art gallery of little moments that we've sculpted out of this world--but most people don't seem to be aware of it."

And what makes Speed so adept at "cruising"? I consider sexual rejection to be my mentor," he says, chuckling through his teeth like Hanna-Barbera's Muttley. "When you're chasing after a woman, as I often am, and she disses you--I mean, what is that? It's just the most incredible, powerful feeling. Women are emissaries of the universe: They're living chaos, given flesh. And to not be able to experience them, to be left out of their world, is to be divorced from nature. I mean, we're all deeply alienated from wherever we began. But ironically, the alienation of sexual rejection has forced me to re-locate those connections that exist between all of us. And that in turn has led me to the vicarious orgasm--the understanding that I can make love to a woman from across the room. It's about taking the horniness from down here [pointing to his crotch] and moving it up to your brain. I had many vicarious orgasms after the screening last night."

Uh-huh. So "vicarious orgasms" represent "the cruise" and separation anxiety is the "anti-cruise"--unless the cruiser can reverse the flow of that negative energy. Speed says that's what he was trying to accomplish in the film through his uncharacteristic (and rather ugly) rant against his mother. ("When I emanated from your bloody thighs, if I'd known all this, I'm sure I would have crawled back in.") "It was a moment I fell into," Speed says of this outburst, "and I do fall into them. I think the pronouncement of that scene is that anger exists. It's a weak, exhilarated kind of self-absorption, but it's a lot of fun--and anger is very important to me. And enemies are important to me. Enemies are inevitable. I mean, if you're truly following your bliss, you're bound to alienate the mediocre. And mediocrity is everywhere. But I would argue that joy is our true state. Depression, despair, and these other things are really just us falling asleep at the feet of a miracle. So the question becomes, 'Are the betrayals and rejections of your life going to shut you down or open you up further?'"

Naturally, the encyclopedic Speed finishes his point about "opening up" with a quotation. "According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, if you make one life on this planet breathe easier because you're on it, then you are successful. And Emerson was certainly cruising."

The Cruise starts Wednesday, November 25 at the Uptown Theatre.

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