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.
"I think he was genuinely surprised by what came out of his mouth on the Brooklyn Bridge," says Miller. "Neither of us were expecting it. It wasn't set up. We decided we wanted to cruise in Brooklyn. We started walking toward the subway, and we decided to continue walking. We said, 'Fuck it, let's just walk over the bridge.' There were two sections (of the film) from the bridge, both from that cruise: When he's talking about the triptychs being his friends and getting support and confidence from the bridge itself; and then, in that moment of security and omniscience, he just thought back to his enemies and he made the declaration. He just went off and the camera was rolling."
Miller's documentary is unique not only for its spontaneity but also for its dedication to "the moment." Miller avoided making a biographical study of Levitch. There are no talking-head shots of friends and family giving their take on Levitch. "It's about getting inside his world," says Miller. "We're with him, we're inside it, and he's just going nonstop until 70 minutes in the film when he shuts up and he's spinning around in the World Trade Center and lying down.
"In yoga you do these postures that are called asanas, and some of them are very challenging to hold, very strenuous and draining and difficult. You hold it and you hold it and you hold it, and then you just relax. You lie back and feel the effects of the posture. The whole film is like an asana -- when you get to the point where he's lying down under the World Trade Center, it's like you're feeling the effects of the film."
The Cruise ends beautifully, resisting closure, opening toward the viewer's own cruise. "It launches," says Miller. "And hopefully you walk into your own city and feel a little bit differently about that."
Miller and Levitch couldn't be an odder couple. When the pair appeared at the Tivoli last November, Miller was pale with black hair, thin and stunningly handsome, dressed in the artist's garb of gray and black. Levitch looked as if he could have been included on the Magical Mystery Tour album cover. For all the exhibitionism and performance, the film persona is his true self. During our phone interview, he riffed exuberantly. "The film is a series of moments giving dictation. It is such a human event because the moments are allowed to be experienced as they are -- as moments. They're moments giving flamboyant cartwheels across the screen. The Cruise is a continuous homage to the moment, which is to say the present tense -- that's what I've come up against continuously in my own life. It's a constant intercourse with the present tense, understanding that time is our constant sex partner."
The Cruise may change Levitch's life considerably. As the film shows, much of his cruise is spent moving from one friend's apartment to another, from couch to couch, securing a place to crash each night. Now he has a play opening in LA. "It's called The Penis Play," Levitch explains. "It's about a man who wakes up in the morning and his phallus has left him and gained a horrible autonomy and is cruising the streets of the city to endeavor his own career, so disgusted is he with the protagonist's ineptitude with womankind. It's a comedy." He's unaffected about being turned down by Letterman: "I really have the sense he's a joyless figure. I'm sure The Cruise makes no sense to him since it's a joyous occasion."
The popularity of a film about finding connections amid an isolated landscape has led to human connections for Levitch that were heretofore unimaginable. "It's like being reintroduced to your own life. Every time the film plays it's like a reintroduction. It's some sort of a shamanic alliance with the 20th century. I really do understand life, the world that we live in, as an unfolding theatricality, a miracle that we are all co-authoring together. I think that heroism is participating in the theater, recognizing the illusion when it's happening and jumping right into it with avarice and opportunity and gulping down the experience. The ecstasies of my youth have always come from human connection, getting close to human beings. I feel the film has been a beautiful gift because I've had further opportunities, more than ever before, to make further human connections with so many people. People who meet me after the film seem to have an opening for me in their heart, which we never would have had if we were strangers on the sidewalk. It is a miracle."
The night of the film-festival screening, a young woman requested that Levitch sign the back of her sweater. "Imagine that," says Levitch the next day. "She's a beautiful, vivacious woman. She would never give me the time of day." He laughs, giggles actually, expressing staccato bursts of air. "I had that Tantric moment with her -- that was ecstasy."
Joy, ecstasy, connection -- not new, indeed very old concepts, old forces to call forth to oppose alienation. But in this time where the ironic pose grows weary, unimaginative and unproductive, The Cruise is one old romantic remedy worth taking.