Twilight of the Cruise

A review of Bennet Miller’s The Cruise (1998)

The grid plan emanates from our weaknesses, this layout of avenues and streets, New York City, this system of 90 degree angles…it’s homogenizing, in a city where there is no homogenization available, where there is only total existence, total cacophony…

-Timothy “Speed” Levitch, The Cruise, 1998

New York can never be defeated, because of its dynamic and diverse population and because it embodies the spirit of enterprise and the love of liberty.

-Michael Bloomberg, speech to the Republican National Convention, 2004  

In Urban Planning, the conflict between economic efficiency and psychogeographical profundity has been won—as have most battles between the right and the left in the last hundred years—by the forces of reaction. “Efficient” urban planning has worn many masks throughout this period: Le Corbusier’s concrete blocks of identical apartments, leased for identical rents, producing identical workers; WPA project towers of brick erected on razed slums, pointing class violence inward; cookie-cutter cul-de-sac suburbs, leaving homeowners begging to commute to the city; the freeways of Los Angeles; the expressways of Atlanta; the south side of Chicago.

Of late, however, the techniques of psychogeography have been co-opted and turned against the city’s inhabitants through a process of “Disneylandification.” When urban space is no longer vital to the management of production, which now occurs predominantly overseas, urban efficiency means maximizing consumption potential. Modernist triumphs like Detroit or Buffalo rot, while gentrification turns vibrant city centers into playgrounds for the wealthy and the tourist, whose experiences are increasingly indistinguishable. Dubai, Las Vegas, Times Square: everywhere urbanism is synonymous with the same forms of conspicuous consumption. Urban planning adopts the techniques of marketing. A stroll downtown becomes a guided tour of manufactured desires.

Thus, Timothy “Speed” Levitch’s psychogeographical double-decker bus tour of Manhattan, as captured in Bennett Miller’s 1998 documentary The Cruise, shows us sites and methods of resistance at the very moment that alienation finally consumes the island. The Cruise, shot on the cheap in black and white, feels as much like an elegy for a city disappeared as a counter-thesis to homogenized urban experience.

Levitch’s Manhattan is one of sexual force and infinite potential experience, “a city that grew up at an explosion, as an explosion, is an explosion.” He is the quintessential literary New York mystic, the kind of man you imagine Bob Dylan wrote songs about and Patti Smith hung out with. His existential ideal is the titular “cruise”, a philosophy of everyday life defined by constant movement and phenomenological creativity. Cruising a city means riding its psychogeographical currents, relishing chance encounters with emotional ambiances embedded in urban space. The cruise is the great grandson of the flanêur’s stroll; the cruise is the New Yorker’s dérive. “The cruise about searching for everything worthwhile about existence. It is about walking into the bar and lusting after all the worthwhile possibilities. It is about flesh. It is about waves, undulating.”

Levitch’s soliloquizing makes up most of The Cruise’s crisp 68 minutes, and it would be folly not to quote from his observations. On the Empire State Building: “If architecture is the history of all phallic emotion, the Empire State Building is utter catharsis.” On Central Park: “The men who build and design this park are Transcendentalists, to them Central Park is a place to become one with nature…No sweating allowed in the original Central Park…Anyone you see bicycling, rollerblading, jogging, they are not historically accurate. Anyone you see lounging in the sun, having a picnic, or kissing, they are historically accurate.” On New York solipsism: “Sunlight: powerful. The sun, another great New York City landmark, above you on the left.”

Aside from a few great shots of Levitch on the top of a speeding bus, his head barely a tenth of the frame as Manhattan swirls large and hallucinatory above him, the cinematography is decent but uninspiring. The editing, on the other hand, uses vivid montage to highlight certain poetical moments but is restrained during Speed’s vital speeches. His emotional and intellectual beats are given ample room to crescendo. The camera often lingers on his silent face, which alternately registers wonder, joy and despair, but never an absence of feeling. So, despite great editing and a well constructed emotional arc, the film lives or dies by your reaction to Levitch’s persona. But his engagement with New York is so affective, witty, and erotic, verging on the manic or even the psychotic, that it’s impossible not to listen to him with empathy, if not always sympathy.

Levitch contrasts the massiveness of what has been achieved in New York with the island’s tiny size, and in so doing underlines the utopic possibilities inherent in density of experience, as well as the psychogeographical roots of creativity. Listening to his whirlwind literary history of Greenwich village, in which he discusses almost thirty canonical authors’ lives in a rapid fire staccato, each time mentioning their distance in blocks from the bus (never more than six), can only invest the streets of Greenwich Village with emotional and historical power.

But what struggling writer can possibly afford Greenwich Village nowadays? Even while the film was being made, Levitch’s meager salary as a tour guide, his devotion to the cruise, and his opposition to full-time employment, the need for which he calls “one of the great tragedies of this experiment called civilization,” left him broke and sometimes homeless, crashing on the couches of whatever friend would have him. It is important to note, lest you imagine Levitch some moon-eyed hipster incapable of praxis, that he spent time in prison for cruising: he was arrested for breaking onto the roof of a skyscraper in order to ogle Manhattan. Foolish or not, the man practiced what he preached.

In the intervening years, Manhattan has been thoroughly devoured by the forces Levitch refers to as the “anti-cruise.” Police, prisons, courts: the enforcers of stillness and imprisonment. Bosses, jobs, economic need: the forces of dehumanization and desexualization. Levitch’s genuine distress that the ugly uniform he’s made to wear will impede his ability to meet women on the tour is a vital critique of how employers constrict workers’ sexuality. Alas, the cruise, though personally revelatory, is ultimately powerless against the massed forces of anti-cruise. It is not irrelevant that The New Inquiry’s screening of The Cruise, held only thirteen years later, took place in Brooklyn.

In one of the film’s final moments, Levitch spins himself dizzy on the plaza beneath the Twin Towers. Then he lies on his back and stares up so that they appear to loom and dance over him. Such a maneuver would be impossible today—and not only because the towers are no longer there.