Movies you might have missed: The Cruise

Bennett Miller's directorial debut, a documentary about an unconventional tour bus guide, served notice on his career-long interest in outsiders

Darren Richman
Wednesday 27 September 2017 13:16 BST
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Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch is the subject of Miller’s 1998 documentary
Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch is the subject of Miller’s 1998 documentary

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Bennett Miller is in thrall to outsiders. In the past decade or so, he has directed Capote, Moneyball and Foxcatcher, three films focused on eccentric characters with idiosyncratic worldviews. The filmmaker is on record as saying: “I don’t have a company. I don’t have a staff. I don’t own anything – I’ve never owned a car or an apartment.” It is little wonder that Miller is drawn to unusual figures and his debut, The Cruise (1998), is a documentary like no other.

Shot in black and white and opening with the sound of Gershwin, comparisons with Manhattan are inevitable but, if anything, the subject of this documentary is even more enamoured with New York than Woody Allen ever was. Timothy “Speed” Levitch is the David Foster Wallace of bus tour guides: intelligent, verbose and seemingly unable to switch off. His tours, delivered at a frenetic pace, move far beyond mere landmarks and onto philosophical musings and existential dread. During one particular tour, he concludes a rant with the words “This is ludicrousness and this cannot last.” There is a brief pause before he adds: “The new Ann Taylor store on the right.”

There is a touch of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, not least because our hero works on a bus and writes poetry in his spare time. Levitch was a popular figure prior to filming as a result of his unconventional style but one suspects Miller couldn’t believe his luck when he started filming. The director served as a one-man crew, sole operator of a handheld video camera and microphone. The film was in production for three and a half years and Miller discarded the first 80 hours of footage he captured. Editing took eight months and Levitch opted to stick to his principles and embrace chaos rather than sit in on the process.

Like the tours, The Cruise is less about New York than the kind of resident that makes it a truly unique city. There is one moment that sums things up perfectly as Levitch reacts almost sexually to the sight of a favourite skyscraper. As he stands on a crowded street corner moaning in ecstasy, New Yorkers walk by without a second glance. There is a sense that this is hardly the strangest thing the locals will see that day and perhaps no other city could produce a character quite so extraordinary.

There are some who will find the subject intolerable but that’s their loss; Levitch is like Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces made flesh and, in the words of Jonathan Swift, ”when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

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