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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!”

“Now, that’s tour-guiding!” he concludes. “That’s what it’s all about!”

In the brisk 25-minute episodes of Season 1, Speed takes us first to San Francisco, then Chicago, then to the site of the “border wars” between Kansas and Missouri, then to Virginia in general and Monticello in particular, and then to New York City. This first-season sequence culminates with an episode titled “Tour Guide Convention”: “All of us [tour guides] together,” he says, “schlepping the same ancient message on our backs into this present moment: Keep It Alive.”

Speed’s approach to touring is not dissimilar from the style of joyous worship preached by the Baal Shem Tov. When we check modern commentary for the traits, perspectives, customs, and practices of the followers of the Besht, words like these recur: “The fervent waiting, the longing for redemption; the erratic wanderings over untraveled roads, the link between man and his Creator, between the individual act and its repercussions in the celestial spheres; the importance of ordinary words; the accent on fervor and on friendship, too.” Thus, for Elie Wiesel, he “taught them [his followers] to fight sadness with joy.” Then, quoting the Besht directly: “ ‘The man who looks only at himself cannot but sink into despair, yet as soon as he opens his eyes to creation around him, he will know joy.’ ” For Wiesel, this is “the joy of man no longer alone, the joy of the old sage waiting for the upheaval of time, the joy of a father wanting to talk and of children eager to listen.”

Levitch’s joyful sense of the communal palimpsest layered onto the surface of American cities is fully and consciously elaborated in the Hulu series. To put it another way, Speed would (again in Wiesel’s words about the Besht) “communicate experience rather than scholarship, intuition rather than logic.” Like his Hasidic forebears, Speed’s practice shuns the monastic cell of solitude, opting instead for the contemplative splendor available in the democratic, universally accessible marketplace. In another century, he might be widely considered a tzaddik, or “perfect devout,” even and especially at his most heretical and eclectic moments. As Scholem states it, in Hasidism “The Tzaddik has the power to annihilate the forces of severity and rigor by getting down to their root and ‘sweetening’ them at their original place.” Is it safe to say that no tour guide “gets down” in the realm of sweetness like the Tzaddik of Hulu, Speed Levitch?

Nonetheless, confronting the sweetness when it gets too saccharine is palpable in a certain cold-eyed realism also evident in Speed’s cruising style. In his seminal essay “Neutralization of Messianism in Early Hasidism,” Gershom Scholem says, “Every Tzaddik has something of Moses in himself.” Speed’s commitment to the realia of space and time—and to the “frozen music” of architecture and cities—is equaled only by his unflinching yet angelic willingness to usher strangers through the purgatory of tragic consciousness. Like Moses, Speed would gently part the Red Sea of indifference for every visitor to every city. “Bitterness is the one plague amongst us that is still going strong, with no Jonas Salk in sight,” he says in the Missouri episode. “Bitterness is the one plague that doesn’t need rats or fleas—just the human psyche.”

In the prophetically elegiac, deeply visionary final chapter of Bennett Miller’s documentary The Cruise, Speed stands between the two still-standing Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (remember, it’s 1998) and spins, dervish-style with arms wide, while Miller’s camera imitates the spin, almost dizzyingly. Speed then slowly relaxes and lies down on his back, comfortable on the deserted walkways of the plaza. The camera focuses straight upward, and the two towers stand as architectural parallelograms that almost touch in a perspective shared with the pearl-gray, overcast sky. Speed’s post-Sept.-11 meditations on their disappearance, and the changes wrought by their collapse, would subsequently provide the focus for Linklater’s free-standing 2003 short film, Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor. Once again, the ministrations of a secular, eclectic Hasidic tzaddik provide a healing reflection on catastrophe, loss, and wisdom: a spiritual resolution to unthinkable violence.

Hulu’s Up To Speed brings Mr. Levitch back into view. The network’s website tells the story of his meeting with Hulu’s producers regarding the pitch for this show.

“What is the most neglected monument in the United States?” asked one of the executives.

Without hesitation, Speed replied: “Kindness.” And with that single stroke of insight, Speed Levitch landed the job.

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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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