The World Before Your Feet chronicles its subject in the middle of his goal to cover all 8,000 miles of New York City streets—on foot.
Inexplicable obsessions can drive humans to a destructive madness—you can see that in much of the work of director Werner Herzog. But New York resident Matt Green has a more benign fixation that, while it may not save the planet, helps him—and us—appreciate what’s right under our nose. Director Jeremy Workman follows Green’s mildly Herzogian quest in the documentary The World Before Your Feet, which chronicles its subject in the middle of his goal to cover all 8,000 miles of New York City streets—on foot.
The peripatetic 37-year old seems at ease in any neighborhood he explores. And explore he does; he doesn’t just barrel down streets chalking up empty miles. As he walks through the five boroughs, Green takes his time. He stops to look at the local flora, which includes such unexpected highlights as fig trees and even a Queens front yard lined with corn stalks. He takes notes on area history, such as a Wall Street site that was once the location of a slave market. Green inventories unusual business titles, such as the curious trend of barbershops that use creative spelling like “cutz,” examples of which number in the hundreds. He keeps a somber tally of 9/11 memorials, which also number in the three figures.
But most importantly, Green talks to the people he meets along the way. Some of them are friendly, others suspicious, yet the itinerant subject has a way of disarming the skeptical, simply by sharing his curiosity and enthusiasm for the city around him.
Workman, a longtime friend of his subject, spent three years accompanying Green on his walks, so the director knows the material well enough to keep the footage varied, alternating boroughs and weather conditions for the sake of visual rhythm. But Workman is also close enough to the project to run a throughline that focuses on Green’s affable gait. However different the surroundings are, whether it’s the height of summer or the middle of a blizzard that leaves Green and Workman essentially walking the streets of Coney Island alone, the patient, determined pace stays the same.
The World Before Your Feet isn’t just a fluffy feature-length Humans of New York. Green gave up a lot to go on his quest. He walked away from his possessions, an apartment (he couch-surfs and pet-sits his way through the city, covering new ground where he hangs his hat) and an engineering job. As a pair of interviews late in the film demonstrate, he also walked away from relationships; two of Green’s ex-girlfriends indicate without bitterness that Green’s errant expeditions (before he tackled the five boroughs, he walked across the United States) aren’t exactly relationship-friendly.
Green isn’t the only man to attempt to cross the whole city on foot. Author Phillip Lopate wrote a whole book about walking around the Manhattan waterfront, and as a sidebar, Workman talks to a few journeymen who have attempted projects similar to Green’s, a few of whom joined him on his walks. The World Before Your Feet ostensibly focuses on Green, but the film’s real obsession is the same as Green’s, and of anyone who loves walking the greatest city in the world: New York. The busy metropolis may be a flurry of activity that is impossible to grasp in its entirety, but, the movie gently argues, it reveals rich stories at every step—if only you take the time to stop and ask.