What, exactly, does being a licensed tour guide entail? Knowing the streets of your city like the back of your hand? Going around wearing a cape and swooping into alleyways, expounding on juicy historical myths of unknown origin? Whatever the trappings of normal tour guiding, Speed Levitch, only “sort of” licensed, is free of them. His new series, “Up to Speed”, is directed by Richard Linklater (whom he previously worked with in 2001′s Waking Life) and hinges on a few simple yet intriguing assumptions: that objects have more to say than historical lore, that obscure objects are more interesting than famous “vapid” ones, and that America’s own violent history doesn’t have to be taken as grimly and seriously as most of us imagine. Do Richard Linklater and Speed Levitch intend the series to be a kind of challenge to Ken Burns, the opposite of his gloom-entrenched documentaries and the depressed kind of reflection they encourage? In short, yes. It was even in their original pitch. ”Three years ago at South by Southwest, we started talking about doing a funny tour guide history show,” says Levitch. “How much fun would it be to create something that inflicts a new tone on historicism. A frivolous tone, turning solemnity and tragedy and sullenness into comedy.” “Up to Speed” certainly inflicts that tone, with plenty of vitality to spare. I spoke with Levitch about history, introspectiveness, and a kind of historiography he likes to call the ‘illumination of the mundane.’
What was the first thing that got you interested in history?
I went to NYU and I was in the art school so there were few liberal arts requirements. One of the few history classes I had to take was all about the French Revolution. It was one of the best classes I ever took. Because unlike most history classes it wasn’t covering vast centuries of time or themes or eras, it was an action-thirller. The professor, instead of starting the lecture, “In the early 18th century there was an influence…” would start “Okay: July 10th, 1791. 8:30 am. On the corner.” It had you on the edge of your seat. It was one of those things where I realized so much history that can be boring really quickly can become exciting in the hands of someone like her who had this whole class on the French Revolution.
I feel like it could totally happen again today. I feel like events are kind of ripe for that kind of thing.
And of course I’m also routing for the human evolution heading inwards simultaneously. Like if we get better at things like self-awareness and having open negotiations with our personality as we go through the journey of life. Then if we get better at the internal stuff, too, I think that will reflect on the outside. The outer environment. Which is another kind of revolution.
That’s the hardest thing to teach.
It reminds me of a quote from Terrence McKenna, when he said something like, “the technology has outrun our self-awareness.” Our self-awareness has evolved a smidgeon, and our technology has raced ahead. So now you’ve got essentially primates with nuclear weapons.
It’s harder to turn inward than to build machines.
It’s the truest Olympics. For us all.
How do you think that inward evolution could be implemented?
There are so many different methodologies out there. I tend to be attracted to the people who talk about it as a very simple thing—I guess it’s more Eastern thinking, or even Joseph Campbell. He talked about it in a similar way. It’s just about having a clear communication—a good conversation—with the inner voice. Because your inner voice always knows which direction you want to go. Because that’s your divine spark, giving you oration and direction. If you have an open communication with that voice, that’s the built-in, custom-made navigational system for your life right there.
So much of society is designed to make you not listen to that voice.
It’s busy out there. It’s easy for the inner voice to get lost in the shuffle.
The inner voice is like, screaming, and it’s being drowned out by everything else that’s going on. A lot of things about society are counterintuitive.
And of course, one of the missions of Up to Speed, the show itself, is the illumination of the mundane. The attitude of the show seems to be, if it’s mundane let’s illuminate it. And that’s really what the show is here for, to practice our ability to savor and make even a suburban mall interesting.
This approach to history is focused more on objects than people.
Yeah, the monuments are the last eyewitnesses to lost worlds. I think that there’s an influence of psycho-geography there, which is a field of study that’s all about real estate and the history of cities for the purpose of psychology—to better understand ourselves. They’re on the same tip we were talking about. Moving the evolution inward. When we start studying a figure like William Quantrill or one of these maniacs that just went out one day and killed everybody. It’s so much more entertaining and self-educational to use Quantrill as an opportunity to investigate ourselves, our humanity, our dysfunctions. How people every once in awhile just go off the way Quantrell did. And when you look at it from a more psychological perspective, of course objects are going to have a lot more to say than humans.
We only have living humans’ interpretations of dead humans to teach us things.
Yeah, and I think that a lot of us agree—the humanitarian view of history in the long run is just looking at it as the story of the oppression of humanity’s potential. And when you look at it as a simple thing like that, if you’re rooting for human potential and for us to be able to solve our own problems and save ourselves, then I think it’s healthy to start a history program with that thesis. That we’re on board for humanity’s potential and history is merely the simple story of the ongoing oppression of what humans can do on this planet.
We’ve tended to think of human potential as being the things we can build, the things we can physically do, rather than thinking of it in terms of being nobler animals. That’s more an enlightenment thing that got dropped somewhere along the way.
It’s all true at a moment like when you see the Golden Gate Bridge or even the Bay Bridge in San Francisco—they’re like long necklaces draped across that bay. They’re technological feats that are also so beautiful. When I see them glittering at night I remember saying to myself: ‘the human being is the most creative animal the planet has ever witnessed’. Maybe it’s about highlighting that as much as the fact that we’re equally destructive.
I always get made fun of because when I take the B,Q, N, R train that goes above ground I like to look at the statue of liberty and everyone thinks I’m very corny because of it.
I know what you mean. It’s very real and very surreal that it’s there.
Just the history of it—all the people that died building that bridge. And the subways—
Each one is an epic, epic drama.
How did you go about narrowing down what objects to shoot per place? You don’t go for the obvious landmarks.
We have an interest in talking to the inner psyches of famous landmarks—we do that as well as visit with the ignored monuments. The truth is that, when you work in tourism, after awhile you realize that tourism just as with a lot of things in our world is very high school. And a lot of really famous and popular landmarks are actually pretty vapid. That’s why they’re popular. But it’s the dweebs in the cafeteria, it’s the wallflower standing awkwardly at this party, that actually have interesting stuff to say. So that’s why my tourism started to lean towards the ignored monuments. However, it can be equally excellent and fascinating as a point of interest on any tour route, to visit with a very well-known landmark or monument and discuss it in a new way. We do both.
What’s one of the more famous ones that you take on?
We hang out with the Statue of Liberty in the New York episode, for instance. We visit with it as a theatrical moment. We look at it from the point of view of the original artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartoldi. And what the artist was creating, and the effect his theater piece had on the world. For Bartoldi, he was recreating the Colossus of Rhodes, which was one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. And there’s something primeval about the Statue of Liberty, she does look like one of the wonders of the ancient world. That’s the essence of what Bartoldi was going for. Because you can imagine it rocked people’s worlds back then, it was huge, and it was in the water, and it bestrode the main port, so sailors, merchants, everybody saw it. So for Bartoldi it was about creating that Colossus of Rhodes moment, that same, stirring, imaginative feeling. He used to talk about how monumental sculpture should create monumental feelings. So he was as much of a theatrical spirit as he was a sculptor. He’s also creating a moment.
I always get weirded out thinking about the Colossus of Rhodes, because if you were sailing through it you’d be for a moment underneath these giant gold genitals.
Exactly. In the Ancient world maybe they had a whole other way of thinking about that.
They’re like ‘we’re blessed! Standing beneath these giant golden genitals!’
Another one of those weird moments that you can have, not nearly on the same level, is with that big bull down by Wall street?
That bull is hideous! What is that doing there?
Kids have a really great time with the genitals on that statue. In fact I notice that in the new Arthur film they use it as a joke.
That’s a fairly new sculpture, right? It looks pretty new.
It’s certainly energetic.
“Up to Speed” premieres on Hulu on August 9th.