Now on MUBI: Let THE CRUISE Take You Back to 1990s New York

Tonight on the SUNDAY NIGHT MUBI, Field of Streams presents 1998’s THE CRUISE, the debut feature from MONEYBALL and FOXCATCHER director, Bennet Miller

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There are lots of different approaches filmmakers can take to the broad genre of documentary. Some may be more narrative, taking the viewer along through a specific occurrence. Some may attempt to function more as an attempt to sway the viewer towards actions or awareness. Others simply explore rarely seen corners of the world. And some, like Bennet Miller’s 1998 debut film The Cruise, function as windows briefly into a specific time, place and (in this case) person.

The subject of the Cruise is two-fold. The most obvious subject is Timothy Levitch, also known as “Speed,” an eccentric tour bus guide who we are thrown in with without any introduction, simply tossed into his hypnotic and seemingly unrelenting stream of consciousness. We are put in the shoes of a passenger along one of his rambling tour routes, where he breathlessly dictates where anyone who was anyone in New York died, where they lived, and what their impression of the city was. We wander the streets as he talks, nonstop, about everything from architecture to Jewish mysticism. There is no real rhyme or reason to what Levitch is trying to communicate as part of his tours or monologues, other than New York seemingly being a place that lots of people have been drawn to, that it is a city that bleeds with history.

Any viewer who hopes for some narrative to conform around Levitch to develop in the course of the film will likely come away frustrated. This isn’t a biography, nor is it even especially interested in telling a single cogent story about Levitch in particular. It is more interested, like Levitch himself, in telling lots of stories, one on top of the other without any singular connective tissue. We get glimpses into his life sporadically: seeing the tiny flat apartment that he is currently crashing at, him interacting with co-workers who mostly seem to tolerate his aloof nature, an extended and emotional riff where he calls out all the people who doubted him, including his own mother. Every moment details of his life break through, it adds a slightly larger version of what our guide’s story is. But it always comes back to the city as his primary muse and interest.

In many ways Levitch is a prickly subject to pin an entire movie’s weight on. And make no mistake, the film is 90% Levitch philosophizing, talking about the nature of reality. But he is also a self-obsessed figure, who compares himself to saintly figures. He shamelessly reveals that he got into tour guiding as a means to meeting beautiful, international women. He makes ableist remarks and questions the benefits of democracy. He’s never unlikable so much as relentlessly intense, but his own enthusiasm for his bullshit pulls the film through its breezy 76 minute length.

The second subject of Miller’s interest is of course New York City itself, which he mostly shoots from a low angle, observing it behind Levitch in its looming glory. The film was shot on high-contrast black and white digital video, giving the film a sharp contrast as Levitch rambles on about half-accurate points of architecture. It winds past Levitch, threatening to overwhelm his free spirit; at one point Levitch comments on him and New York having gotten into an argument the winter before, but that they were on better terms now.

Levitch’s view of New York is best understood within the titular concept of the movie, the cruise, which is both how he describes the way the tour buses wind aimlessly through the city streets, but also how he lives in New York himself, careening from point to point with little forethought. As such, New York is simply a series of lives intersecting and departing, cruising past each other. That’s why he tours the city by telling the stories of the people who lived there, even if fleetingly. Their stories are the bones of the city.

It is impossible to watch this film now with some sense of ominousness; a product of late 1990s recklessness, the Twin Towers loom large in several shots, including one scene where Levitch simply stands between them, stares at the sky and spins until he is too dizzy to continue. It is a freedom that he is claimed, that is in attunement with a culture that was built on a relief following the Cold War, that doesn’t yet know the Endless War it is about to enter. For that reason it’s breeziness serves as a time capsule of a moment before everything would shift once more, where life could still feel like an itinerant cruise.

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