The Cruise at 20: looking back at the movie that broke the DV revolution

Twenty years ago, a tiny documentary by a future Hollywood A-Lister made waves at the Toronto International Film Festival – and changed movies forever.

☞ Jump down to The Cruise: an oral history, a conversation between Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, Bennett Miller and Michael Levine.

Robert Greene
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Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch in The Cruise

Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch in The Cruise

In the spring of 1995, Bennett Miller, a well-to-do young New Yorker with a ton of smouldering ambition, was close to giving up his childhood dream of making movies. The previous summer, Miller and a cameraman had filmed nearly 80 hours of Hi8 video of Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, a spirited, couch-surfing New York City tour bus guide/oral historian/comedian philosopher and longtime friend of his younger brother, but the footage wasn’t good enough. It lacked intimacy and it didn’t have that magic feeling of spending the afternoon with Speed that had attracted Miller in the first place. Perhaps the Hi8 images were a bit too muddy or home movie-like. Speed was to have been Miller’s cinematic saviour, or at least the first movie idea he thought might resonate with audiences. Miller had recently worked on an industrial video about homelessness and he thought a portrait of the charismatic muppet-poet (who happened to lack his own bed to sleep in) might be an intriguing contribution to the cultural discussion.

Determined not to let the project die, Miller did some research on the new batch of ‘prosumer’ MiniDV cameras just hitting the market and he settled on the Sony VX-1000, both because it was small enough to fit in a bag and because it produced a decent enough image to allow the footage to eventually be blown up to 35mm film, still the only viable way to distribute a movie at the time. These new digital video cameras were a leap forward in affordable quality and Miller was an early, eager adopter.

The next crucial decision Miller made was to shoot the movie alone, holding the camera himself and capturing sound primarily with a now-also-affordable lavalier microphone, eliminating the boom mic he’d been using. The shoots were to become a kind of two-man show, cameraperson and performer. Speed started sneaking Miller onto his double decker bus/daily stage, knowing his collaborator’s compact camera looked just like the average tourist’s. Off they went cruising for what would become The Cruise.

The film they’d create, a strikingly direct, funny, poetic piece of nonfiction portraiture, helped initiate a radical transformation in the way documentaries were produced and perceived in America and inspired a generation of filmmakers. “I saw The Cruise in New York in the cinema when it came out,” Academy Award winning director Laura Poitras (Citizenfour, The Oath) told me when I interviewed her, “and I remember being completely blown away by it and just excited by the moment of possibility of digital and what just one person could do with a camera.”

This idea of a ‘one-man band’ became infectious. “I was trying to figure out how to do my own thing and The Cruise came out and I was fascinated,” said director Rachel Boynton (Big Men). “It was the film that made me go out and buy a camera.”

Sometime in late 1998, sitting in a small theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, I saw The Cruise and to my young eyes it seemed Miller had stumbled upon the next wave: attainable, consumer-grade, hyper-expressive cinema. Within months I had picked up the same camera.

“I think the biggest difference that the MiniDV era made was this – tapes were cheap,” said Steven Bognar (A Lion in the House). “Julia Reichert and I had both worked in 16mm before we started making Lion. Every time you start rolling the camera, you hope it’s worth the money your spending and that’s not a thought that a documentarian should have in their head when something is happening in front of them. But now, with MiniDV tapes costing only 3 bucks for an hour of high-quality image and sound, we could roll all the time.”

The stage for this breakthrough had been under construction for decades. In 1960, a journalist named Robert Drew led a group of young filmmakers, including David and Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, among others, to use new, lightweight, sync-sound 16mm film cameras to create what they called “a new kind of journalism”. The Direct Cinema movement they started became vastly influential, producing such films as Drew’s Primary (1960), Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1967) and the Maysles’ Salesman (1968), while helping shape the aesthetical conversations around the work of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke and Frederick Wiseman.

These documentarians used new technologies to force a fundamental shift in nonfiction filmmaking away from broad, newsy work towards intimate, ambiguous, empathy-rich stories about real life characters, directly anticipating what Miller later accomplished. “Robert Drew absolutely affected the course of my life,” said Miller. “But in 1995, when the DV cameras came out, the technology brought it to the next level and you no longer required subjects like John F Kennedy or Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones to justify whatever kind of support would be needed for the budget and the transportation or whatever else it would need to make your movie. You really could afford to get small and to get off the beaten path and choose a subject like Speed.”

By 1995, the mood was decidedly low fidelity. Kurt Cobain was dead but indie rock wasn’t yet, with slacker rockers like Beck, Pavement and Sebadoh becoming bona fide sensations amongst the scenesters and college kids with their DIY recordings. One of my favorite records of 1995 was Guided by Voices’ Alien Lanes and it’s not too difficult to find similarities between the lo-fi haze of that album’s sound and the noisy visuals of The Cruise. Meanwhile, a group of relatively unknown Danish filmmakers (including Lars von Trier), in trying to find ways to create meaningful work with lower budgets, announced their Dogme 95 manifesto, which would eventually bring us the cruddy-poetic digital movies The Celebration (Vinterberg, 1998), The Idiots (von Trier, 1998) and Julien Donkey-Boy (Korine, 1999).

Little of this was in Miller’s mind, however, when he restarted his work with Speed that spring. “I never thought about what we were doing in any kind of context of what anybody else was doing or how it might relate to anyone or anything,” Miller said when I interviewed him. “I was interested in Speed and the present moment and that’s it.” He’d found in Speed Levitch a perfect documentary character and he knew it. It was just a matter of how to capture him properly. Once the technology and the technique were finally set, it all seemed to click.

As the loquacious, history-obsessed Speed could tell you, the streets of New York have long been the stage for bursts of improbable inspiration and unexpected revolution, and his collaboration with Miller would continue that tradition. After so many hours together, something Miller calls “self-consciousness fatigue” began to set in, as both he and his subject would settle into a relaxed, intimate, focused groove.

Speed would never stop performing, of course (he considers himself a “life-artist”, which is crucial to understanding the compressed duality of ‘actor’ and ‘self’ that Miller captures), but his on-camera persona became more grounded and revelatory once they dispensed with the other cameraperson and the distracting boom microphone. Miller became a watcher/recorder/instigator with his friend and muse and eventually began to work with editor Michael Levine, who would later go on to cut such essential documentaries as Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That (2007), Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the Kid (2007) and Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger‘s Restrepo (2010). Over the summer of 1996, they filmed virtually non-stop, capturing the footage and editing out of Miller’s apartment.

What they created is a stripped-down, hilarious, haunting work of present-tense, prosumer cinema. The unadorned style allows the radically noisy images to transmit a kind of raw, expressive, pixelated poetry while creating a frame in which we can appreciate Speed’s idiosyncratic oral histories. Although the movie was eventually transferred to, and screened theatrically on, 35mm film, the material peculiarities of the DV image are never shied away from, conjuring something like a new visual language.

One scene finds Speed giving his tour on a sunny day and admiring the Chrysler building, telling his riders that a major architectural critic of the era called the skyscraper “uninspired voluptuousness”, a critique to which Speed adds, with a hint of deadpan disbelief, “in the sunlight”. Levine then cuts from the iconic building back to Speed who is washed out in overexposed, digitally captured light. Speed then says, “The sun, another New York City landmark, above you on the left,” to snickers from his audience. The image looks almost like a mistake, but it’s a perfect visual joke that gloriously collapses form and content, with the camera’s manual exposure setting syncing up magically with Speed’s performance in a fleeting moment.

A film that begins like a lo-fi Manhattan (or perhaps a DV version of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost), with its stark, lovely, black and white images of the city scored to George Gershwin’s But Not For Me, soon settles into the Speed show. At turns ebullient and sad, ‘Speed’ is a nasally, clown-like, highly sympathetic sesquipedalian, created by Timothy Levitch and performed thoroughly. The film is essentially a series of monologues and presentations of Speed’s existential, philosophical, poetic expressions of oral literature, which can be enlightening, very funny and often genuinely inspiring.

The Cruise (1998)

An early scene finds him creating, out of historical fragments, a magical Greenwich Village for his riders, mingling Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Eugene O’Neill, Henry Miller, ee cummings, DH Lawrence, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas and more in one gloriously verbose outburst. In another scene, Miller and Levine cut from Speed’s orgasmic appreciation of the terracotta side of a building to him walking down a lonely street, with the silences and pauses as important as the sputtering avalanche of words.

There’s never a doubt Speed is constantly playing to the camera, but the combination of his inbuilt, performative self-awareness and the camera’s complicity in that performance takes the kind of self-melodrama of a film like Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975) and pushes it to another level. The effect of this hyper-awareness is to elucidate a basic truth of nonfiction cinema: no one is ever not performing when a camera is present. Speed’s comic, mannered theatrically and Miller’s patient, controlled gaze work to reveal the intrinsic layering of the form, exulting in essential complexities that many documentaries, with their often blandly conventional ideas of ‘authenticity’, work to implicitly deny. “I will appreciate the beauty of the flower,” says Speed in the film. “And then likewise I will stand exhibitionistic having the flower appreciate the beauty of me.”

As it goes on, there’s a subtle, escalating tension that builds on the film’s semi-narrative rhythms, which pushes the almost wispy portrait to a place of surprising depth. ‘Cruising’ is Speed’s self-created religion, based on the act of energetically embracing every single present moment, while simultaneously dodging the bureaucratic “anti-cruise” forces that threaten to stifle his creative expression (and his libidinal freedom). The Cruise “is about flesh. It is about waves undulating. It is about exhibitionism,” as Speed tells it. Meanwhile something called “the group plan”, a sign of civilised conformity (and a new rule that might force Speed to wear an official Gray Line bus tour shirt instead of his own raggedy clothes) seems to be actively trying to keep our hero from being himself (and perhaps getting laid). It’s easy to imagine, especially with the DV images constantly forcing viewer awareness of the corporeal aspects of watching a low budget film, that Speed is a kind of spirit animal for independent cinema itself – and perhaps of independent thinking, in general.

Speed’s methods of surviving (crashing on people’s couches) and somewhat checkered past (he went to jail) are only hinted at, but his battles with real and imagined enemies are pushed to the fore, deepening our sense of how he fancies his own realities and constructs his own dramas, which in turn complicates his character. A hilarious airing of grievances scene on the Brooklyn Bridge leads to a darker-than-expected attack on his mother that feels at once destructive and ironically self-aggrandising. “Your narcissism is mediocre,” he declares. It all leads to a climactic, sad dance routine between New York City’s fated twin towers and a final walk into the white light of the sky, an imagined fairy tale release from the real world (which is also simply a matter of the camera being left on manual exposure).

Miller’s presence as Speed’s unseen dance partner shows another primary truth of documentary cinema: the cameraperson is always a character. This becomes especially apparent when the unseen character/cameraman is holding a device anyone can purchase. There is an inescapable awareness of the pixels, of the image, of the act of capturing which is thrilling to watch.

But this is no home movie; the images are too expressive, the compositions too precise and the structures too controlled. Technology, method, subject and execution had never been more tightly integrated. Miller wanted to make cinema and his methods and means just happened to be nonfiction and economically possible. This sort of over-the-counter, ‘just make a movie’ mentality had never before been so cheaply realised. After being rejected by Sundance, the film premiered at the tiny Los Angeles Independent Film Festival before making a splash at the 1998 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released nationwide on 6 November 1998.

Despite its radical embrace of new image technologies, neither of the positive reviews in the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times made mention of digital video, and had very little to say about the camera, in general. This may reflect a general lack of respect for documentary as an art form as much as it shows these particular blind spots in coverage, but considering the profound shift The Cruise represented, it’s still remarkable. Other press outlets understood the sea change a little better, with magazines like Wired publishing articles entitled “Independents Day: Digital Video is Smashing the Celluloid Ceiling” and Filmmaker Magazine giving plenty of coverage to the emerging DV revolution. Meanwhile the venerable Amy Taubin declared in the Village Voice: “The Cruise is being hailed as a harbinger of a future in which indie film will be liberated by low-cost technology. If this is where we’re going, I want off the bus.”

Despite Taubin’s protestations, the floodgates were now open. Technological advances made big-screen dreams more achievable and thousands of aspiring filmmakers were now busting through the gates. Apple’s affordable Final Cut Pro desktop editing software was released less than a year later and then The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) brought the video image to the masses.

Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler’s all-digital The Last Broadcast (1998) may have been released a few months prior, but it was the artistic and theatrical success of The Cruise that provided a blueprint for a generation of Americans who grabbed their own cheap cameras and followed their idiosyncratic cinematic impulses. Digital video would have changed the film world without them, but what Bennett Miller and Speed Levitch collaborated to create perfectly harnessed the new medium’s elastic possibilities, setting off a thrilling new era of affordable, personal cinematic nonfiction. Twenty years later, we’re all still cruising.

 

The Cruise: an oral history

The film’s star Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, director Bennett Miller and editor Michael Levine reflect back on the film.

The Cruise (1998)

Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch, star: I was in direct intercourse with the intensity and extravagance of the present tense and I was looking to do my own theatre. However, when someone told me I had to associate with society and have an open and lewd profession, I sat down with myself and asked myself, “What do I enjoy doing? What can I actually contribute to society?” I love New York City. I loved history and, of course, I love performance, and tour guiding immediately occurred to me as a nexus in all these ingredients. And I had plenty of rehearsal – I was doing four or five circles a day – and by the time the material for the final cut of The Cruise was shot, I’d been doing that job for four years.

Bennett Miller, director: I had given up this ambition of making movies I’d had since I was a 12-year-old when I met Speed. I was just drawn to that like a moth to a flame, and pretty much everything Speed said had a powerful resonance of truth and creativity and humour and some suffering as well and it just drew me in.

SL: Bennett’s younger brother was a good friend. I was couch-surfing and they had this great place to just come hang out.

BM: We pulled it together to shoot about 80 hours of Hi8 video, working with another cameraman, and it got to the end of the summer and I looked at that footage and it didn’t have the dimension of the stuff I was talking about that attracted me to Speed in the first place. We waited out the winter and when spring rolled around I was able to get my hands on one of these brand new MiniDV cameras that allowed me to put everything into a nap sack, and I said to Speed let’s just start doing this again.

Michael Levine, editor: Bennett scrapped the idea of having a cameraman and he decided he was going to shoot it, which was absolutely right. That intimacy that he had with the camera between Speed and himself wouldn’t have happened with another cameraman.

SL: There was a key moment I remember when we decided to go back and Bennett said, “If The Cruise is about appreciating the beauty in the largest and smallest of things, then it seemed like we were trying to appreciate the largest, so let’s go try to microscopically and appreciate the smallest.” That’s been kind of a mantra for me since we began.

BM: You can understand the universe by using very powerful telescopes that you can see near the edge of the universe or by using very high-powered microscopes and really get small – and come to many of the same conclusions.

SL: I remember the first time I heard Bennett say the words ‘digital video’. I didn’t know what that meant but he was excited… and he never got excited! It was a revolutionary moment and Bennett was on top of it.

BM: We could have done it with Hi8 or VHS, but these DV cameras had qualities to them and we realised, “Oh my god, this could play festivals and this could get blown up to 35mm feature film and not look terrible!”

SL: Even at the time as a performer I was sensitive to it. The intimacy we were able to create – it was the digital video camera – but he also got a lavalier microphone that clamped on me so nobody could see it, and he could hear through glass, which I was very impressed with. The fact that I could be having interactions with the ticket sellers on the bus, amongst the chaos of 34th Street and 5th Avenue, with tourists in the Gray Line terminal, and he would be on the other side of the terminal and I knew he could hear it… this just kind of emancipated me as a performer. As a rock band, we got better at this. The present tense was the bass player and with this new camera and new microphone we’d been liberated.

ML: The Cruise was shot in colour and we edited it in black and white. From the beginning Bennett knew he wanted it in black and white.

BM: I never once watched the footage in colour. And to me it kind of gives you one degree of separation and I think allows the footage to become more magical and timeless and it asks you to look more carefully. It’s some kind of signal that things are a little bit different here.

SL: Bennett started showing up on the double decker bus with just his camera and there would be 100 other tourists with their VHS cameras and he fit right in. And as the conductor of the bus, I could get him on at any time so he never had to pay. I would pick him up often at the SoHo stop near where he lived. This went on for a long time.

BM: Speed represents an entity that is incapable of not living in the present moment. There is performance, but if something happened that was kind of magical, and I was not able to capture it, if I ever asked Speed to recreate it or try ‘another take’ it was the worst thing ever. It was going to happen spontaneously or it wasn’t going to happen.

SL: I was definitely experiencing what the Germans call ‘life art’. I understand why people would be confused. Like, “What is performance in documentary?” But people who have trouble with that don’t understand what performance is or what the roots of it are. A performer is just a life artist and you’re understanding reality as clay that we’re shaping together and at the end of each day there’s a gallery of these moments that we’ve crafted together and the universe is the ultimate retrospective of these sculptures of moments we’ve created. It’s a life artist experiencing life art.

ML: I mean, Bennett was a fairly novice cameraman. He knew that camera, but he chose the camera because he could be intimate with Speed. The camera had a zoom but I don’t think he ever used it. If he wanted to get close, he got close.

BM: The moment there was any sort of pressure to have something happen or to chase something, I think that was anti-Cruise radiation and we might as well have packed up for the day. It was sort of a meditation exercise where something in your brain has to fatigue or maybe Speed has to fatigue of me and the camera. I had to give up on any sort of timetable and really just be present.

SL: Self-consciousness fatigues. If someone points a camera at you, you might be self-conscious for a little while but, like any muscle, it gives up. I mean, I’m going in there with the ambition to be entertaining, but that’s got nothing to do with it when you’ve got the camera pointed at you for two hours. Then you are just a human being at that point, as if you’re on an x-ray table.

The whole thing took four years. I didn’t even believe a film was going to be made. It wasn’t until Michael Levine was hired about 75-80 per cent into the process that encouraged me that we were actually going to complete something.

ML: When Bennett hired me, I had been doing historical documentaries, and was looking for something to break out of that pigeonhole. Bennett worked out of his apartment and was putting his own money into it and, you know, I wasn’t making very much. At the time I was also offered a job for twice the money, but it was the material. I mean this Speed material really moved me. I was really affected by it.

SL: The only time I ever made a big deal about it was to the beautiful women tour guides, and even then I’m not sure they totally believed me because Bennett was just another kid hanging out with a camera.

BM: I remember taking the MiniDV tapes out of the camera, just hitting eject and taking them out and if something special had been shot, I remember the feeling of holding that tape in my hand as I labelled it and knowing that in ones and zeroes in this thing is the thing that I’m after – the reason I’m doing it. In this hand-labelled tape, with my terrible handwriting, I really felt like a prospector and I am holding a lock that contains gold in it. It’s what it felt like.

ML: I mean not everybody ‘got’ Speed, you know? I would show friends some dailies and they would be like, “You’re going to make a whole film out of this?” And there was a little bit of panic. Our first cut of the film was close to four hours long and that first cut screening was the most depressing thing. Like, oh my god what are we doing? We realised very quickly with Speed you can’t just let him go on. There’s only so much you can take.

SL: One of my favourite comments was when Jean Rouch said that the film was a “beautiful love poem to a city with a clown standing in front of it”.

ML: We thought that people might feel the story was lacking if we didn’t have a certain amount of background, so we thought we’ve got to go out and get some of this because there’s none of it, right? And then it came down to the last couple weeks and those last battles… and they were heated battles. Bennett was really smart to stick to just what was working and, you know, to hell with the rest of it. Everyone knows that phrase “You’ve got to kill your babies.” It takes a very wise filmmaker to know which of those babies to kill.

SL: I still remember the night that we first submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. It was kind of like applying to an Ivy League school early. We were told we had to send it to Sundance and no place else. So nobody else had officially seen the film. They sent back a critique, and their critique was not only that they rejected the film, they said it was “unwatchable”, and they recommended re-editing and I was like, “Did they watch the same film that I saw?” And that is the exact same cut that we know today as The Cruise.

We found out that somebody on the Sundance staff actually liked it and recommended it to the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. And it probably was fortunate that we got into the LAIF instead of Sundance because it was a smaller festival and it put more focus on the one screening they gave us at 10:30 in the morning on a Saturday.

ML: When it succeeded, it was just a hell of a lot of fun and we were just really happy. Now to me, looking back, it’s kind of like a garage band. We just did it in Bennett’s apartment and Bennett went out with a camera and, wow, you know… I don’t even think we knew that it was the first fully digital release until after it was done and it was in some magazine or something.

SL: I never felt like a documentary subject, personally. I always thought of us as forming a rock band and I was the front man. It didn’t seem possible that a full length, black and white documentary film would get out there in any way, and when it did we were all blown away!

BM: To me, the inspiration I felt before I ever brought a camera and before I had a formal goal – that spirit that needed incarnation before we ever embarked on the actual act of filmmaking – I feel that it’s present in the film. The thing that drew me in is communicated in the medium. Anyway, the present tense.

SL: Picasso said it, and I think he was only reiterating what Leonardo Da Vinci had said, that every portrait is a self-portrait. And when and if you ever get to see the lost footage of The Cruise, I think you’ll see Bennett was forming a self-portrait.

A lot of the scenes cut from the movie are just funny… they’re pure comedy. I was portrayed in The Cruise as a loner, but as anybody who’s actually couch surfed can tell you, you cannot couch surf unless you are a very social person, unless you have a lot of friends, unless you bring positive energy into this living room where people are happy to have you around! I couldn’t have been a loner and a depressant as much as I’m portrayed in, at least, act two of The Cruise if I was a successful couch surfer, which I was for 14 years in New York City (laughs). These are choices Bennett made because he was more creating a self-portrait of himself, through me, through that material.

I mean, I was 27 when we made that film and I would argue that if post-production had gone differently and some of the other scenes had been in there, that I would have had different girlfriends. That’s how drastic it’s been! [Giggles.] I got a lot of un-comic girls over the years, I mean not a lot [laughs], but there were women in my life who had been totally into The Cruise and, when I think about it, probably were meant to be with Bennett because they were attracted to the self-portrait aspect of it. There were plenty of times when I’m midway through an argument and say “This has to do with that one depressant scene.” If that scene had not been in there, then I wouldn’t even be with this girl and I wouldn’t even be having this argument right now.

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