"Independent film," that phrase voraciously embraced by renegades and capitalists alike, has spawned something ugly, or at least something that mocks the impulse to make films outside of industry norms. As with punk rock, grunge or even the odious naming of generational identities, films that are truly subversive are co-opted into being commercially "subversive." Of course, it's not all bad -- it means that more people get to make more movies. But the flip side is that art is more quickly, and subtly, shelved for commerce.
Blame "sex, lies and videotape," a great film that put the Sundance Film Festival on the mainstream map. "Sex, lies and videotape" didn't reinvent filmmaking, but it did send a shockwave through the sluggish market of big-budget filmmaking and made low-budget filmmaking highly profitable. It became the genesis of a marketing strategy to cultivate or discover new auteurs like Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Allison Anders and Whit Stillman. Most important, it defined an independent film as any movie that didn't have a major studio name in the opening credits -- even after all the major studios bought up the independent studios.
So in an age when "independent film" has lost its meaning, does the genre still have anything left to offer?
After founding the Newport International Film Festival last year, I watched a decent chunk of the gamut of 1998's independent films in every conceivable format -- on scratchy videotape, faultily projected, in lush screening rooms and 2,000-seat houses. And what I found was that some films that will never see the light of a projector -- projects that have no stars, no color, no fictional narrative and no one named Parker Posey or Eric Stoltz appearing in the credits -- embrace all that is valuable, inspiring and invigorating about independent thinking and art. It's not that a good film can't be made with name actors or big money. But it's the independent films that are fueled only by sheer artistic commitment to a singular, striking vision that keep the institution alive. Films like "The Cruise."
"Keep it alive" is the mantra of Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a waggish New York City double-decker tour bus guide and the subject of Bennett Miller's enthralling documentary, "The Cruise." "The Cruise" screened in Newport this past June, where it won both a special award for documentary filmmaking and the coveted Audience Award. I have watched it grow from our East Coast premiere (it started at the L.A. Independent Film Festival) to bigger, more renowned venues (Toronto Film Festival), where it left audiences roaring, just like in Newport. Artisan, a relatively new distribution company that, in my eyes, has yet to make a bad move (OK, maybe the Jerry Springer movie was a bad move), snapped up the rights this fall and put it into the distribution circuit about a month ago. Levitch and Miller made the publicity rounds, with a few dips into the mainstream cogs (the New York Times, "Conan O'Brien") and the movie seems to be surviving. But it deserves to be thriving. It has every paradigm of non-accessibility looming over it -- a documentary, shot in black and white with a hand-held camera, no movie stars, no pop stars -- but it defies expectations in its ability to charm a wide swath of filmgoers.
Levitch is the perfect subject for a documentary. Funny, brilliant, isolated, provocative, tragic and painfully aware of all these qualities, Levitch is drawn out by Miller's direction -- not exploited by it, as he might have been by a less ambitious filmmaker. Not that Levitch required much coaxing. I have read so many articles about the film, almost all of them positive, but it's a little like reading an obituary about someone you knew well -- no matter how elegantly it's expressed, it doesn't do justice. Yes, he's poetic ("The Cruise is appreciation," begins one of Levitch's elegies in the film, "it is a voyage, it is a journey back into ourselves, it is a cartwheel, or a handstand. The Cruise is always sincere.") He's got great one-liners ("I think of every double-decker loop as another loop toward my death"). He uses the clicker on his microphone to underscore precise comic timing. ("Note the commuters running toward their destinations and away from themselves. This is ludicrousness and this cannot last." Click. "The new Ann Taylor store is coming up on the right.") But there's a much darker subtext to what seems, on the surface, to be simply a charming, quirky film.
Levitch lives on the edge of chaos. He's nearly homeless, not capable of insinuating himself into a mainstream job, disenfranchised and at times very, very alone. But watching "The Cruise," you realize that he lives right next to the experience of joy, closer than most people will ever know. As a viewer, you become the muted affiliate of his experience. Not only are you witness to a glittery, giddy mind articulating a cogently reasoned, viscerally re-created sense of self for an audience of one (Miller) and of many (us), you also follow the interior drama of his daily existence. The man, after all, has no home. His family, whom we never see on camera, seems to have given up on him. And while some of his pain is comically expressed (his bitter litany of long-suffered slings and arrows includes a jab at "Jen and Michelle," who apparently excluded him from an orgy), Levitch does not shy away from his own occasionally overwhelming sense of failure. Speaking of his grandparents' disappointment in him, he stabs his finger into the camera and says, "I really, really do not want to become the person they think I am going to become." It is clear he fears that it's already too late. Miller's hand-held, grainy black and white cinematography (the film was originally shot on digital video and bumped up to 35mm) manages to circumvent the clichi of tightly framed documentary confessionals by matching almost perfectly the style of filmmaking with the tone of the subject. Levitch's intensity for living is matched frame-for-frame by Miller's concentrated fascination with Levitch.
Within the framework of the film lies the heart of Levitch's philosophy, which is, literally, the Cruise itself. It's something akin to Luke Skywalker's Force, with the anti-Cruise resembling Darth Vader's Dark Side. The Cruise, to Levitch, "is the appreciation of the voyage," and he rages against every physical, philosophical and emotional circumstance that seeks to destroy it. Expectations, responsibilities and class distinctions all stand in the way of Cruising, and he struggles with their relentless presence. It's a heady task in what is simultaneously the greatest and toughest city in the world. Reeling from its stimulus in the age of information, consumerism and ambition, Levitch is Walt Whitman in a time chamber, trying to preserve what he loves about himself.