by James Berardinelli
October 29, 1998
For one day, the Cruise stopped in Philadelphia.
In the lobby of a Center City hotel, I sat down with first-time director Bennett Miller and the subject of his documentary debut, Timothy "Speed" Levitch. Miller called his film The Cruise in reference to Levitch's belief that life is a form of freewheeling journey, rather than the series of mundane repetitions that most of us see it as. In terms of non-fiction cinematic portraits, The Cruise is arguably the most entertaining and engrossing endeavor since 1994's Crumb.
Miller and Levitch are a study in contrasts. The director is a quiet, intense, thoughtful 31 year-old man while the subject of his film, age 28, is hyperkinetic, outspoken, and gregarious. After a long day of interviews, Miller appeared somewhat tired, while Levitch was brimming with enthusiasm. And, while Miller sat formally in a chair across from me, Levitch curled up in his seat to my right, legs tucked comfortably under him.
Early in the interview, it became clear that either The Cruise was a startlingly accurate depiction of Levitch -- his personality, his world-view, and his emotional state -- or the man is an exceptionally gifted actor. He comes across in person exactly as he does on the screen. No transition or shift of perspective is necessary. Speaking with him is like participating in an unscripted sequel to The Cruise. It's a testimony to Miller's ability as a film maker that he was able to so accurately capture Levitch's character in a short (76 minute) movie.
Miller first met Levitch when the two were teenagers in Westchester County (Levitch was a friend of Miller's younger brother). Years later, after Miller had dropped out of the NYU film program, he re-encountered Levitch, and, after spending some time with the flamboyant tour guide, decided that he would be perfect as the subject of a documentary. Levitch, who describes himself as a "walking rough draft," was receptive to the suggestion, and, during the summer of 1996, Miller began following him around with a camera. Levitch, who granted Miller "full access," quickly warmed to the experience, explaining that speaking to the camera is "like talking to a woman you're in love with." Eventually, Miller ended up discarding the footage he shot during 1996, but he returned the next year and obtained dozens of hours of material that, once edited to a manageable length, became The Cruise.
For Miller, the process of making the documentary was an arduous one. Unlike many young film makers, he is not consumed by an ardent enthusiasm for his craft. He is dedicated and serious, but not fervent. In fact, he admits there were times while making The Cruise that he wondered, "What am I doing?" and promised never to put himself through such a strain again. In the end, however, Miller states unequivocally that all of the draining, difficult work was worth it. For his next project, while he isn't ruling out attempting a feature, Miller is interested in doing another documentary. He has a subject in mind, although he is unwilling to discuss specifics because he has yet to approach this "living historical figure" with a proposition.
These days, most first time directors are trying to make their mark with a Tarantino-like splash. By starting out with a documentary, not the sexiest form of motion picture, Miller is showing a desire to be different. Hollywood does not hold much allure for him. His purpose in getting behind the camera is "to capture some truth" about the human experience. In discussing the difference between a narrative film and a documentary, Miller observed that both offer an opportunity to present this truth. A documentary seems to be the better forum for what he wants to do, although he admits to being "more interested in the content than the form."
Despite having entertained thousands of tourists in New York over a period from 1992 to 1997, Levitch is not famous, and that was one of the things that drew Miller to him -- his relative "obscurity" in the world (a fact that will soon change as The Cruise rolls out to at least 13 North American theaters, with additional venues to come if Artisan Entertainment is pleased with the box office results). Of course, the other things that make Levitch the ideal subject for a documentary are his boundless enthusiasm and his unique view of life as an adventure, "an opportunity to dedicate myself to chaos," and "a constant choice between humiliation and humility."
When Miller first approached Levitch about doing the documentary, he was all for it. For him, it was an opportunity to preach his philosophy of the Cruise to a wider audience than the men and women who got on an off his tour bus on a daily basis. "It's always been a dream of mine to promote the truth," Levitch remarked. Likewise, he's enjoying the publicity tours, which offer him the opportunity to return to familiar places, visit a few new ones, and speak with all manner of critics, publicists, and other media types.
One of the fringe benefits of the publicity tours is that it gives Levitch a comfortable venue in which to lay his head from time-to-time. Since he does not have a fixed address, he relies upon the good will of others for a place to sleep every night. He calls the process "couch surfing," and it's just another part of the Cruise. Numerous of Levitch's friends and acquaintances have allowed him to spend some time in their homes, and there have been occasions when he has overstayed his welcome. I asked him if the movie has paid any couch surfing dividends. With a smile, he related a story of how, one night in a bar, he had been greeted by a stranger who, recognizing him from The Cruise, offered to buy him a drink. The two got along fairly well, and Levitch ended up spending the night on his sofa.
At one point during the interview, Miller began quoting one of Levitch's more memorable monologues from The Cruise. I asked him if he had memorized the entire film, and he said that he had at one point, but he was beginning to forget parts of it. My response was that the only film I had seen enough times to regurgitate large chunks of dialogue from was Patton. This caused an immediate and unexpected response, since, by coincidence, that happens to be one of both men's favorite movies. Levitch mentioned that he saw likenesses between himself and the general (who wandered through the ages, not just through the 20th century). Patton, in his view, was on a similar Cruise to his own. I noted that there had been an apparent reference to Patton in The Cruise (a line about the falseness of individuality), but I hadn't been sure if it was intentional. Levitch assured me it was.
I wondered if Levitch believes the possibility of fame might change him. He doesn't think so. He has no plans to settle down in an apartment (he has negative views about paying rent), although he has bought a cell phone that allows people to contact him. He no longer works for a bus company, but gives private walking tours of New York. The only change he envisions once The Cruise is released is that business might get better. Regardless, he still plans to keep cruising.
As for Miller, he has been encouraged by the reactions of critics and the general public to the select screenings of The Cruise that were held prior to its October 23 opening in New York. The movie has played at a number of film festivals, including the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, where it premiered, and the Toronto International Film Festival, where it drew enthusiastic raves. Miller said that in Los Angeles, the film had such a positive advance buzz that there were long waiting lines with people scalping tickets for as much as $50. If The Cruise has a reception anything like that when it starts playing at art houses across the country in November, Miller should have no trouble lining up future projects, and Levitch will be giving tours into the next century.
© 1998 James Berardinelli
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