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Cruising the Margins

Is ‘Speed’ Levitch, subject of the new documentary, The Cruise,

"14th Street is the widest part of Manhattan Island at 2.4 miles across" - "Manhattan Island is 13 miles long" - "H.G Wells once wrote that to tell the story of New York City is to tell the history of the world. Fasten your seat belts." 'Where did they find this guy?' was all I could think as I settled in to gain the wisdom of the whiny onscreen rantings of Timothy "Speed" Levitch. This wacky, Grey Gardens-esque documentary allows us a glimpse into the life of Levitch, New York City tour bus guide - cum - filmmaker - poet - historian turned out to, be quite a gem. Subject matter that at first seemed bizarre and obscure turned out to be just that, but in a fabulous and engaging way. Levitch is clearly an odd duck, but this portrayal of his story is decidedly un-lame. On topics ranging from Jewish mysticism to the Fulton Fish Market, Levitch always has something to say.

Levitch spends his days making a barely living wage on the double-decker buses of The Big Apple. He is lonely in love, broke, estranged from his family, and without his own place to live. He is also an undiscovered poet, screenwriter, playwright, a scholar of New York history and architecture, and an egomaniac. He is at once totally insane and fascinatingly brilliant, and director Bennet Miller takes us on a tour (or cruise) of life in New York "Speed" style, in all its self-indulgent and fast paced glory.

For Levitch, we learn "cruising" is a metaphor for life. He sees himself hurling through existence, particularly in a place as tumultuous as himself, and the cruise becomes his way to reach out to people, to grab their attention and shake their apathy if even just for the hour they spend on his bus. We follow him on several tours and listen to his informative shpiels about the lives of George Gershwin, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Eugene O'Neill, Dylan Thomas, and Willa Cather. Unfortunately for him, it is often unclear whether or not his patrons can fully appreciate what he has to say. Many speak little to no English and although he tells the camera that he regards the cruise as a way to pick up a variety of foreign women, he never gets away with more than just a hug from an Italian grandmother or a kiss on the cheek and a "grazie."

The viewers are given many voyeuristic windows into Levitch's somewhat tortured past and his estrangement from his family. He is a nebbishy Jewish loser who can't live up to the professional and status-bound expectations of his parents who reside, we are told in a fascinating segment that takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge in the suburbs of New Jersey. This is a kind of a theme both unique and universal at the same time (it resonates for me, a Jewish kid from New York who has strayed a bit from the family mold, and yet makes me feel relieved that I am not as far "out there" as Levitch seems to be). He also exhibits quite freely to the camera his visceral, lecherous sexuality. His language is replete with sexual reference, from taking pleasure in the skyline as voluptuous, lascivious, and undulating to reflections on the sensual waves of the East River and the molestation of civilization.

Levitch also tells us about his time spent in prison (for what crime is unclear), but as the film wears on I began to realize he's maybe more than just a social outcast, something might not be quite right. But whether a criminal, a visionary, or just a wanderer, I left the theater feeling optimistic, like I've been touched by just a little bit of undiscovered genius. See this film for yourself -- it might make you interact with the world around you in a new and different way. Life on the margins can be a long, strange, compelling and passionate trip.


The Cruise
Not Rated
1 hour 16 minutes

Timothy "Speed" Levitch