An engaging illustration of the difference between merely looking and really seeing, Jeremy Workman’s “The World Before Your Feet” profiles Matt Green, whose current occupation is walking every block (and park, and bridge, etc.) of New York City. It’s a labor of love that’s already consumed years, with no end yet in sight — but then, Green is most definitely an “It’s the journey, not the destination” type. This portrait of one man’s eccentric yet appealing, even enviable quest is a gently philosophical exercise in armchair travel that underlines how much of our own immediate “world” we take for granted.
The thirtysomething Green is a former civil engineer who at some point decided a desk job — or any conventional employment — was not for him, and for whom this isn’t his first such rodeo (in 2010 he walked across the United States, from Rockaway Beach, N.Y., to Rockaway Beach, Ore.). But that coast-to-coast journey took just five months. Green’s subsequent, ongoing task may end up covering three times that 3,000-mile length, despite being limited to New York City’s five boroughs. It’s further elongated by his compulsive research on the history and fascinating trivia behind each tiny slice of the Big Apple — some of which he posts on his walking blog/journal. But he’s running way behind on that, too.
This vocation no doubt conjures images of our protagonist chin-wagging with colorful, gregarious “melting pot” types on the teeming urban streets. And indeed, there’s a certain amount of that, not least because Green is an affable sort always happy to explain his purpose to curious passers-by. But as he pads across the farthest reaches of Governor’s Island, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, et al. in weather both fair and very foul, one is struck by how much open, abandoned and just plain obscure space exists even in the nation’s most densely populated (8.5 million) city.
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Workman (“Magical Kingdom,” “Who is Henry Jaglom?”) creates a sort of semi-bucolic “city symphony” film out of his subject’s very diverse days on foot. There are amusing digressive montages taking note of Green’s favorite recurrent details, including “churchogogues” (former synagogues converted into churches by shifting neighborhood demographics), hidden edible plantlife, barber shop signs spelled with Z’s (e.g. “Klassic Kutz”), 9/11 memorials, community gardens, and so forth.
We also get a wee fraction of the historical errata he digs up, much of which isn’t in the standard guidebooks. There’s the site of the city’s erstwhile Municipal Slave Market (which closed a full century before the Civil War), as well as Malcolm X’s assassination and the first U.S. birth control clinic. Exploration of cemeteries reveals graves for luminaries from Houdini to painter Basquiat and salsa queen Celia Cruz. Toward the end, he tracks down an approximately 400-year-old tree, the region’s oldest, which was “born” before the earliest Dutch settlement laid claim to what would later become New York.
As ingratiating as he is, Green is also something of a blank — less a deep well than an absorbent surface, like many people who obsessively devote themselves to a singular pursuit. He survives on about $15 a day, crashing on friends’ couches or occasionally cat-sitting. The question he most frequently has to fend off is why he does this — no one can believe there isn’t “some kind of revenue stream” as an end-goal, like becoming a paid guide or publishing a book. But such things don’t interest Green, who shrugs “The point of it all … Well, I don’t really know what the point is.” Like the concurrent “Free Solo,” this is a documentary about a protagonist whose devotion to one thing leaves very little room for anything (or anyone) else — as two politely disappointed ex-girlfriends confirm here.
“The World Before Your Feet” fully exploits the geographic, thematic, and human-interest variety of its subject’s grand project, while Workman’s cinematography and editing achieve impressive textural variations in themselves. His assembly echoes the observation that the “random pieces of a puzzle” Green assembles on his endless tour reveal “the parts are greater than the whole.” In other words, a city’s real depth of meaning lies in its accumulated minutiae, not in the surface glitter of imposing monuments, headline-making events, or even the oft-oblivious routine of everyday experience.
While some more skeptical strangers seem to think Green is wasting his time, “World” makes it easy to admire the logic of his explanation that “It’s just about the value of paying attention to something.”