Published October 1, 1998
The Cruise, directed by Bennett Miller, is really a one-man show featuring Timothy “Speed” Levitch, a tour guide with the Gray Line Tours in New York, who is a non-stop talker in a distinctively New York fashion, spouting a mixture of pseudo-profundity and nonsense in a vain attempt to show himself off as sage, prophet, poet and scholar. In fact, he is just one more of our seemingly endless supply of crypto-hippies—actors, rock singers, comedians, street poets etc—who manage to make a living in the midst of our booming Clinton economy by glorifying, in one way or another, the more general cultural tendency among single urban males (especially) of refusing to grow up.
Levitch’s particular shtick is talking about the city, which he considers to be “a living organism”—though what kind of organism he’s not quite sure. Sometimes he thinks it is a cyclops and sometimes a mermaid, “who sings to me at night.” The fey image prefigures his later use of a hippie-style, individualistic and narcissistic Buddhism (I’m told that such Jewish Buddhists call themselves Jew-Boos) to explain at tedious length his life-philosophy. “Become the flower is fun,” he says, “but also the flower also can appreciate the beauty of me.” He imagines himself in a love affair with the flower, which would be “better than some of the bay-nal”—as he pronounces it— “creatures of the human race. Although I’d be into that too.” He also talks about how in his best moments he will “become the Brooklyn Bridge” and consider that “we are equals.”
This kind of sub-mystical nonsense Levitch appears to think of as distinctively artistic or writerly, and his running commentary on the Gray Line tour of Manhattan concentrates on the romance of “writers”—including Poe, Melville, Henry James, H.L. Mencken, Edith Wharton, Nathaniel West, Henry Miller, Arthur Miller, Jack Reed, D.H. Lawrence—among whom he seems to hope to be numbered himself. All of the famous writers, interestingly, are said to have lived some blocks away from where Levitch is actually speaking about them and none of their actual houses appears on film. Bennett Miller appears no more interested in them qua writers than his subject is. For both of them the names are just magic words which confer some of their magic on those who use them.
Levitch’s contribution to the language is the eponymous “cruise,” which he uses to describe his ideal, untrammeled and unrestrained journey through life. Obstacles, inconveniences etc he refers to as “the anti-cruise”—“the anticruise is certainly mobilized today,” he says of things that amount to “an attempt to imprison you at every level of existence.” The one genuinely funny scene comes as he pronounces a series of imprecations on various manifestations of the anticruise in his own life, on those who have slighted or snubbed him or been his enemies. He is especially vehement against the two couples he went with, as he thought, to an orgy. Angrily if a trifle pedantically he instructs these former friends that “an orgy is when everybody participates, and not four out of five.”
The symbol of the cruise is the cockroach which has been cruising for millions of years, refusing to submit to the anticruise. “No prison for the cockroach,” he says. “I have such respect for those bastards.” It is an interesting commentary on his doctrine that “If there’s one thing the cruise is, it’s sincere.” But sincere is the one thing that Levitch’s own example of performance art—designed as it is to provoke and entertain and, above all, to impress us with a familiar kind of authenticity, is not. The one moment where something he says seems—briefly—genuine and from the heart is when he talks of how his grandparents consider him a failure and a wastrel. “In their view I will always be a downtrodden failure,” he says, sadly. But he tells us he really would “like to have done something they could respect. And I really do not want to become the person they think I’m going to become.”
Alas, I fear it is too late.