Photo by Kathleen Clark

“It is difficult to be a deep-thinking, sensitive individual and not get tagged for it in some way or another,” says Bennett Miller, the 31-year-old director of the documentary The Cruise. “If you are going to face, as Walt Whitman put it, 'the quick, abrupt questions that arise within each of us,' if you're going to face them head-on, you're going to take some body blows. But I think you're gonna come out the other end a lot better for it.” He pauses thoughtfully. “But, yeah, following those questions can lead you right to the edge of sanity.”

The Cruise's subject, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, is a man perched right on that edge. Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Lillian Hellman all rolled into one, Levitch is a lisping, acne-scarred genius who barely scrapes out a living as a New York City tour guide; he's a nervous breakdown both trussed and liberated by his own brilliance. As Miller's camera follows him over the course of a year at work and during his free time, Levitch holds forth on architecture, literature, sexuality, spirituality, the very nature of what it means to be human . . . The list goes on.

Though heterosexual, he has the swishy flamboyance – and ace comic timing – of a seasoned drag queen. More importantly, he owns the deep-wounded pain and penetrating insights of the eternal outsider. Miller wisely turns the camera on Levitch, then gets out of the way. Even wiser are the director's editing choices: A year's worth of filming added up to over 100 hours of digital video that was eventually whittled down to 76 minutes. It would have been easy for Miller – who grew up with Levitch in Westchester County, New York, then lost contact with him until 1994 – to shape Levitch into a Lily Tomlin character: all wise benevolence, a shaman chafing gently against society's constraints, curbing his moral outrage and indignation into cuddly homilies. Levitch's affirmations are as rooted in anger and frustration as they are in awe and reverence. Miller allows him that complexity.

“Well, that's what distinguishes television sitcoms from something that aspires to affect people,” says the director. “To me, it's a portrait. I think it's vital to see somebody's layers. [The film] starts off with him being a curiosity, a funny, intriguing, intelligent guy – quirky and entertaining. But I think the real value comes when you see what he's up against, his own internal struggles, his outward struggles. It would be fantasy if I'd said, 'Oh, look at this happy-go-lucky, idiosyncratic guy who's able to love life and orgasm over buildings.' I don't think that stuff occurs without a struggle.”

Miller dropped out of NYU film school, worked as an assistant to Jonathan Demme, has directed music videos, and is an astonishingly well-read student of literature and politics – particularly Abraham Lincoln (“If anybody in modern politics had a trace of the consciousness that he had – for even one moment – they'd be ashamed and embarrassed by what they're all doing”). Miller feels that the film chose him, not the other way around, and it's easy to see why he let himself be drawn in. Levitch has the madman's freedom to speak the truth; the film outlines how he's earned that right, and his assertion of it is as seductive and hypnotic as the film is moving and hilarious.

When he's asked what Levitch thinks of The Cruise, Miller breaks into laughter. “He loves it. He loves it. I mean, if you watch the film and hear what he aspires to in life, what he wants, and also in footage you haven't seen, where he talks about what he wants out of life” – to write books and plays, and to be a celebrity – “the film has really brought it all about for him. He wants to be able to exhibit that he's thrilled to be alive, and to still be respected. He's being so warmly embraced. He sits through every screening he can possibly get to. He loves it.”

LA Weekly