Watch a Charming Travel Series Directed by Richard Linklater

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 18 2012 10:15 AM

Richard Linklater’s Charming Travel Series

uptospeed
A still from the trailer for Up to Speed(Hulu)

Last week, Hulu posted the final entry in Up to Speed, its six-part travel series. Directed by Richard Linklater and starring Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the show is a mashup of travel, history, and meandering beatnik rants. As with much of Linklater’s output, I found it frustratingly flawed and yet deeply charming all the same.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

America first encountered Levitch in The Cruise, a 1998 documentary about his life as a tour guide in Manhattan. (It was directed by Bennett Miller, the man behind Capote and Moneyball.) Levitch’s adenoidal voice, rubbery face, and astonishing facility with historical facts made him an unforgettable figure. It’s easy to see why Linklater would take a shine to him: The director keeps a stable of pet monologists.

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Like philosophy professor Louis H. Mackey and filmmaker Caveh Zahidi—both of whom appeared, as did Levitch, in Linklater’s Waking Life—Levitch has an Olympic-level gift of gab. He can rap at you for hours on end, freestyling instant riffs on whatever topics happen to cross his transom. Yes, he sometimes veers into bullshittery. But—and this is the secret to top-notch bullshitting—however far afield his thoughts may float, he always sticks the landing with some soulful, big picture wrap-up.

Up to Speed once again capitalizes on Levitch’s outsized personality and eclectic interests. The Chicago episode focuses entirely on the labor movement. The scenes shot in Kansas are all about border disputes and dissolutions. This is hardly Rick Steves. The offbeat, countercultural approach surfaces some intriguing historical nuggets while letting Levitch do his dharma bum thing. Perhaps most fun is the concluding episode, in which Levitch talks shop with other tour guides. He makes a groovy case for his notion of existence as one big tour—each of us a lifelong tourist, the universe our docent.

Don’t expect lush travel cinematography here. Linklater has framed about three visually interesting shots in his multi-decade directorial career (not counting every shot of Julie Delpy’s face). The show also unnecessarily illustrates Levitch’s speeches with hokey graphics, and tacks on dopey comedy bits.

Still, it’s great fun to meet up with Levitch again. After watching his on-camera breakdowns in The Cruise, it’s a relief to know he’s not only landed on his feet but has remained one of the better tour guides the world has ever seen.