“Get your walking jokes in,” filmmaker Jeremy Workman quipped as Matt Green, the man who is walking every block in New York City, strode up the aisle at Quad Cinema.
We had just watched The World Before Your Feet, and Green’s presence at Wednesday’s Q&A turned out to be even more exciting than that of actor-turned-producer Jesse Eisenberg, who had introduced the film on its opening night. Clearly, the heartfelt, uplifting documentary is poised to make Green a folk hero akin to Forrest Gump.
Like Gump, Green once walked across the country. But in some ways his latest undertaking is more ambitious: After nearly seven years and some 9,000 miles of pounded pavement (and parks and beaches), Green still has an estimated 500 miles left to go. In order to avoid a desk job and buy time to walk the city, he couch surfs, cat-sits, and keeps an ascetic $15-a-day budget.
Compared to his cross-country trip, his hyperlocal odyssey is also more difficult to explain to people, Green has found. “It takes me a lot of words to say it,” he told the crowd at Quad. “In New York when someone comes up to you on the sidewalk and they start saying a lot of words, you’re like, ‘Uh, is he trying to sell me something? I better get out of this conversation before it’s too late.’”
At least, that’s the stereotype of New Yorkers. But The World Before Your Feet shatters those stereotypes as it depicts Green bonding with his fellow city dwellers on even the meanest of streets, pushing their cars out of the snow, getting in on touch-football games, disarming them with local history. As a result of the experiment, Green says, “I know that I’m more trusting of people and that I’m more open to just going somewhere and not having to know that there’s something to see.”
While much of the documentary is about literally stopping to smell the roses (or the fig trees that you never knew were growing on Queens patios), it turns out there’s a lot to see when you leave your comfort zone. “We’re right here in the Village,” Workman told the crowd at Quad, “and we all forget how big New York is.”
Indeed, there are unexpected delights to be found even in boroughs that have become national laughing stocks. Green said that “Staten Island would surprise the most people just because it has such a strong stereotype about it.” Workman agreed: “There were days when we’d be walking and there’d be deer everywhere, and other days where there’d be turkey… just the terrain and how some areas were suburban and other areas had a lot of religious stuff.”
Workman, who has been friends with Green for about a decade, shot some 500 hours of his subject’s meanderings over the course of three years. In typical self-deprecating fashion, Green said he was “literally insanely boring for 99% of the time.” But if you’re one of the few longtime readers of his blog, I’m Just Walkin’, you know that he can hold forth about everything from the world’s largest tennis-ball mosaic (built for an Indian guru in Jamaica Hills) to the city’s oldest house, where Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote part of Hamilton in Aaron Burr’s former bedroom.
In this sense, Green comes off as a less speedy version of Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the tour guide of quintessential NYC doc The Cruise. On Wednesday, Workman recalled a day of spiel that didn’t even make it into the film: “We were in Queens and Matt did a whole thing on the history of Kennedy Fried Chicken and then he talked about a mail bomber of around the 19th century or turn of century, then he went into Hindu structures in Queens, then he talked about aluminum siding, then he talked about World War I memorials, then he talked about glaciers.”
While it would’ve been impossible for Workman to put all of Green’s urban obsessions on film, he did manage to capture some of them. Every time Green spots a barbershop that uses a Z in its sign (as in, Klassic Kutz), he looks like he’s found a pink pikachu.
While another documentarian might have treated Green as pathetically quixotic and laughed at him instead of with him, Workman soundtracks his film with the uplifting music of viral travel videos. It’s clear that he considers his subject’s quest the stuff of enlightenment, even if the film does briefly acknowledge that Green’s obsessiveness has cost him a relationship or two.
Workman said that following Green on his journey caused him to see “how diverse New York City is.” While there’s a stark contrast between the scenes filmed in the Bronx and those filmed in tourist-swamped Manhattan, neither the director nor his subject seem particularly fixated on that popular motif: New York City Is Changing For the Worse. Green, who grew up in Virginia, admitted that it might have been different if he was a lifelong New Yorker. “I don’t have childhood memories of a place being a certain way, so I’m maybe less sentimental about the idea of something changing being inherently bad.”
Much like City of Gold did with Los Angeles, The World Before Your Feet reminds complacent, jaded New Yorkers to stop griping about the latest bar closing and go out and explore the corners of the city that have yet to be Equinoxed. “You could do what I’m doing,” Green reminded Wednesday’s crowd. “You don’t need special shoes. I don’t feel like it’s anything extraordinary except for the fact that I just do it a little more frequently than other people.”