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Big Apple Spiel

The Cruise takes us on a breathless tour of NYC and the whirligig mind of guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch

Alienation is the theme of the 20th century. It is so pervasive, so much discussed and documented, that any artist approaching this theme does so at peril. What can be said about modern alienation without falling back on the sophomoric cliche? The fashionable response, but one that's wearing thin, is the ironic pose. The cool, distanced, deadpan gaze of recent films such as Buffalo '66, Your Friends and Neighbors and Happiness presents an alienated society, but as the indie filmmakers break taboos (dirty sex talk, come shots, pederasty), inevitably they say little more than "Here is an alienated society. Isn't it weird? Aren't we inventive in expressing it?"

In the documentary The Cruise, Timothy "Speed" Levitch stands atop a double-decker bus, a tour guide who makes Manhattan -- itself a cliche of alienation -- a new, stimulating, living character. What performance artist Spalding Gray has called "the island off the coast of America" again becomes the dreamscape of romantic isolation, loneliness, fear and wonder through the vision and spontaneous, nonstop verbiage of Speed Levitch.

Irony is dispensed with in The Cruise. Twentieth-century alienation is confronted by 19th-century romanticism in the person of Levitch, whose ecstatic vision resembles that of a former resident of Manhattan, the visionary poet Walt Whitman. Levitch, too, finds glory in the great manmade structures that vault the sky, as well as in the small, often-neglected plants placed along the public thoroughfare. Levitch is the idyllic romantic child of Whitman's imagination, the one who goes forth each day to behold the world around him and who then becomes that world. Levitch not only works to find the beauty of the flower, he wants the flower to see the beauty in him as well.

Although this may sound like a soft-focus film in praise of innocence, The Cruise is as much about the struggle for romantic liberation as it is about the dream. Levitch is always imperiled by the "anti-cruise," those powers that place yellow caution guards on the footpath, that trigger alarms on fire-exit doors that lead to rooftop views, that strive to reshape exuberance into postured irony.

NYU film-school dropout and first-time director Bennett Miller follows Levitch with a handheld camera as he conducts Gray Line bus tours of Manhattan. In dark glasses, Levitch occasionally looks like a Semitic John Lennon. He plays the on/off switch of his microphone for rhythmic effect as he riffs on the history of the island. In Greenwich Village he lists the famous writers who toiled a few blocks from the bus route -- Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Dorothy Parker. He describes George Washington's walk from his inauguration to St. Paul's Cathedral, where the first president knelt to pray on a pillow for the future of the union. He prepares his audience (both those on the bus and in the theater) for a dramatic turn onto an avenue where the Empire State Building is seen in full, majestic view for the first time. He quotes Lewis Mumford on the Chrysler Building, and then describes the sun shining on it as yet "another New York landmark."

From the opening frames, with Levitch crooning out-of-tune Gershwin, he is a nonstop talking dervish. With Miller accompanying him on the eternal cruise, Levitch walks the streets alone, observing, thinking, entering into vocal rants that begin randomly, then build into profound critiques of modern life. A woman's offhand remark about Manhattan's grid plan leads to a thorough, improvised examination by Levitch of what the grid plan means -- a grid of conformity that dehumanizes and kills the soul. The City Courts Building, an ominous, Kafkaesque structure that Miller films at night, leads Levitch to a soliloquy on the world as prison, the evils of the "anti-cruise," and the triumph of the cockroach, which defies all boundaries.

Miller and Levitch, who were in town for The Cruise's screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival, insist that the remarkable spontaneity preserved on film is genuine. It took three years to achieve, though, and the first summer's shooting was all discarded, says Miller. "It wasn't so continued on page 72continued from page 71much wrong as it was our process. We were getting into it. It was very interesting and very funny and entertaining stuff, but funny, interesting and entertaining might make a Hollywood movie but it doesn't make the kind of movie I was interested in doing. I wanted to get to some of these deeper themes, touching on alienation and inspiration. Also, aesthetically, I was finding myself within it. Also that summer served to totally fatigue his (Levitch's) self-consciousness to the point where he just didn't even bother. He is an exhibitionist, and there is a strong performance aspect to him, but I wanted to get around that. There are places where I really believe he lets his guard down and he's not in as much control and where he's expressing himself beyond what he means to be."

One such moment, one of the most mesmerizing in the film, is a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in which Levitch calls "to all the enemies who add flavor to my life: Why don't you come up to the Brooklyn Bridge and talk to me about it?" What follows is a litany of sleights to Levitch's character, from the small and insignificant to those that have deeply disturbed his psyche.

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