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‘Speed’ Levitch, Neo-Hasid

Is the free-associating tour guide and hipster icon, star of a Hulu original series, the hidden saint of our times?

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(Dana O'Keefe/Hulu)

Up to Speed, an original show produced by the online video service Hulu, is a series of half-hour American travelogues directed by the indie superstar Richard Linklater and featuring Timothy “Speed” Levitch as himself. For those who don’t know him, Levitch is a tour guide extraordinaire. Each episode of Up to Speed, now in its first season, provides an astonishing, even touching renewal of the covenant Levitch seems to have signed in his youth: an unbreakable bond between his psyche, his viewers, and the urban-symbolic mythos that humans construct in cities. But it is also something else—something unexpected, and layered.

Levitch and Linklater first worked together in the director’s fully animated feature, Waking Life (2002). There, Linklater’s fluid, rotoscope-based animation captured the psychedelic verbal wonder as he articulated his nonstop, discursive elaboration on cities, signs, and significance, liberally sprinkled with quotations from and allusions to Federico García Lorca, Thomas Mann, and Alberto Giacometti. Linklater’s short film-meditation on Sept. 11 titled Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor featured Mr. Levitch discoursing into the camera at Ground Zero and Wall Street and won the award for Best Documentary Short-Special Jury Mention at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003.

Linklater was not the first film director to discover Levitch’s unique camera-ready, free-associative qualities. Some five years earlier, Bennett Miller’s documentary The Cruise (1998) had focused exclusively on Levitch as he practiced his craft in pre-Sept.-11 New York City, working as a duly licensed tour guide for Gray Line Tours by day, then writing and ruminating in his Bohemian walk-up by night: dreaming and scheming ways to “rewrite the souls” of the tourists on his bus and alternately, of the world entire. Miller’s hand-held, black-and-white sequences document Speed spouting nonstop into the tinny tour-bus PA microphone about the Big Apple’s genius loci (“spirit of place”) to his amused and sometimes bewildered clients. “When they asked Greta Garbo why she lived in New York City,” he intones, “she said that New York City was the only place where she could be alone.” “The world,” he later concludes, “is an opportunity to exhibit how exhilarating alienation can be.”

But what about the core of Mr. Levitch’s own soul, which clearly he has also been “re-writing” for decades? Where does his scholarly, yet freely associative, intuitively analogous and intensively inter-textual thought process take root? One surprising—or not so surprising—answer: Hasidism and tales about Israel Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760, by acronym the Besht), its founder.

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Near the end of The Cruise, Levitch recounts extemporaneously—with power and passion—how the Baal Shem Tov inadvertently came to reject from among his followers one of “The Just,” the 36 Lamed Vovniks of Hassidic lore who, with their ordinary acts, most often unknown to others and even to themselves, save and preserve the world each day. To hear Speed tell it, the Hasids had assigned Mordecai, a poor and ignorant yet hyper-enthusiastic young Hasid, the lowest of loathsome tasks: to clean the privies by himself. “They called him [Mordecai] ‘The dancer of God,’ ” Speed states, “because when the Hasids would form for their reels of dance, in honor to their ecstasy to their God, Mordecai would jump so high, and would dance with such an exuberance, the other Hasidics were embarrassed about him—and for him—and he was exiled from the dance. And so he appeased himself by dancing alone at night, in the shed reserved for the sick and dying. And he would entertain them in the evenings, alone.”

When the Gaon of Kiev informs the Baal Shem Tov that there is a Lamed Vovnik among his followers, his attempts to identify the Just One prove fruitless. Only after the shunned eccentric’s departure from the scene does the Besht realize his mistake: “That one was healthy among the sick,” he says, “and I did not see him.”

In Up To Speed, his new Hulu series, Levitch provides multiple “continuity clues” to his own particularly Hasidic, yet also psycho-secular, pan-spiritualist, and psychedelically literate background. His approach to urbanism creates a fluid intertext of locale, memory, and irreverent, joyous wisdom. “Moses is mostly known for being an early prophet of Judaism. Yet it’s his career as tour guide where he truly achieved,” intones Mr. Levitch at the top of Episode 6.

“The reason why many consider Moses to be the Charlie Parker of tour guides is that he was the first ever to forgo a route. And if that act was not audacious enough,” Mr. Levitch continues, “he takes his tour group into a desert and just starts aimlessly walking for decades. And not one refund!”

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‘Speed’ Levitch, Neo-Hasid

Is the free-associating tour guide and hipster icon, star of a Hulu original series, the hidden saint of our times?