World Before Your Feet is Life Affirming

Directed by Jerry Workman

The World Before Your Feet is my favorite film of the year thus far. It is billed as a documentary, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s more like a life-affirming journey with an OCD eccentric.

Meet Matt Green, Virginia-born and now in his thirties. He lives in New York City, if we stretch the usual definition of “lives.” He’s a former engineer who had his midlife crisis early and walked away from a high-paying career because he couldn’t stand the idea of spending his life behind a desk. His response was, shall we say, unique. In 2010, he was living near Rockaway Beach in Queens, noted there was also a Rockaway Beach in Oregon, and decided to walk the 3,000 miles from the former to the latter. It took five months. It was great training for his next project: walking every block of New York City’s five boroughs. That venture took six years and covered more than 8,000 miles!

Green is affable and curious about everything. Depending on your point of view, he’s either an urban Henry David Thoreau or a bigger slacker than the Great Lebowski. He divested himself of all worldly goods that he couldn’t easily stow at wherever he was sleeping at the time. Green called upon friends, met people on his walks, did house sitting, pet care, and odd jobs, but he had no apartment or permanent base of any sort. Most days he spent $15 or less on food and essentials, though presumably he drew upon vaguely referenced savings to pay for his iPhone service. Each night, Green mapped out the next day's walk, which he wrote out on a piece of paper so he could keep his phone camera at the ready.

It’s safe to say you’ll never think of the Big Apple the same way after seeing this film. Green walked every day, even during the 2016 blizzard that dumped more than two feet of white stuff on Gotham. (He “only” did 8 miles that day!) Green takes us all over the city, though the film concentrates mostly on lesser-known parts of the city, such as abandoned shoreline streets on Staten Island and neighborhoods far from where tourists tread. As another interviewed walker notes, though, most of New York is undiscovered, even by those who claim to “know” a particular part of the city. After all, most of us travel the same corridors in our everyday lives and can easily be surprised by something just a block or two from our normal journeys.

It’s unclear exactly when director Jerry Workman got involved in filming Green, but it’s a daunting task to squeeze six years into 95 minutes of film. Doing so requires that one take a selective and episodic approach. We see Green walking streets all over the city, but Workman concentrates on a few themes. For example, Green reveals a series of “churchagogues,” former synagogues repurposed as street churches because Jews long ago moved out of a particular neighborhood. He also shows us the oldest tree in New York, impromptu 9/11 memorials, and the unmarked sites of where Malcolm X was murdered and where Margaret Sanger ran the first family planning clinic in America. For reasons that simply amuse him, Green is drawn to store names that replace the normal “s” with a “z,” as in hair cutz.

Mostly the film is about some of the people Green encounters. As Jamaican immigrant and poet Garnette Cadogan reminds us, it’s easier for Green to walk New York unaccosted than for a black man such as himself. It is nonetheless noteworthy that Green was never mugged, was often welcomed by complete strangers, and generated good-natured curiosity wherever he went. I suppose it helps when there’s a camera on the scene–not to mention various write-ups and news reports–but I doubt Workman’s camera there every day and every step. In many ways, this film is a love letter to the Five Boroughs. I’m not saying everyone could march across any part of New York at any time of the day without getting into sticky situations, but there is much to be said about connecting with people as people and not as categories. Call it karma f you will, but Green got back mostly what he put out: a love of history, the environment, the city, and humankind.

Green is no saint and he’s certainly not cut from domesticated cloth, as two former girlfriends attest. As both he and Workman remind us, though, tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I found myself thinking of Thoreau’s assertion that he, “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Thoreau went to the woods; Matt Green went to the Bronx and beyond. This gem of a documentary is the most life-affirming thing I have encountered in quite some time.

Rob Weir


Zoe Speaks:January 2019 Album of the Month

Zoe Speaks

This one made it to me at the end of the summer, but got thrown into an "Unknown" MP3 file because it wasn't coded properly. Let me correct this oversight  (not mine) by starting the year off right and declaring their album Wings as my favorite album of the month.

The band's name derives from the fact that this is a family band in all those 21st century ways. It is anchored by two award-winning singer-songwriters, Mitch Barnette and Carla Gover, who began as a husband/wife duo, got divorced, sorted out some stuff, and rekindled their musical partnership. The current project includes one of their daughters, the band's (semi-) namesake Zoey, a wonderful fiddler and harmony singer who also dabbles in other instruments. There's also her fiancé Arlo Barrett, who plays guitar and everything else under the sun, plus standup bass player Owen Reynolds.

Wings is a magical blend of folk, Americana, country, gospel-influences, and old-time mountain music that comes at you with flavorings from lots of people you know, though their sound is uniquely their own. I don't think there's song on the album that I found less than top drawer and several that were so sweet they made me weep. Most of the latter are those in which Ms. Gover is in the lead. "Wings of a Dove" is one such offering. There's a small catch in Gover's voice, lovely backing harmonies, and a gentle sway that's indicative of how Zoey Speaks knocks you over with quiet power. Also in that serene yet expressive mode is "Cheat the Blues" with its expert phrasing and its invitation to "take your shoes off" and get back to the things that matter. When she wishes, though, Gover can go full cowgirl, as on "Give Me Some Sugar," which is equal parts Dolly Parton and Patsy Montana. "There's a Hole in Your Soul's Supposed to Be" has a gospel feel, which Gover picked up from her grandmother who used to sing a cappella hymns. She even nails a traditional children's song, "Paper of Pins," as if she's the offspring of Jean Ritchie. Or maybe it's John Hartford, whose style is evoked in the banjo-led and mandolin-enhanced "That's What Dreamers Do." If all this isn't enough, Gover is also a flatfoot dancer.

Barnette is a fine singer in his own right. He's usually front and center when the band veers in unexpected directions. "The Earth Has Had Enough" is self explanatory in theme and in its folk activist sentiments, but the tune is adorned with cadences that evoke reggae. "Black Feather" has a pastoral bluegrass feel, courtesy of gliding flute accompaniment. He dusts off his pained vocals for "Bluebird," an acoustic mountain blues song about plans gone wrong. I also enjoyed his self-deprecating humor. "One Foot," is a slice of Steve Goodman-like wry commentary on a total screw-up who vows to do better. Barnette throws us a curve by shifting into storyteller mode; his spoke word observations about a documentary on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina serve to take us to the song's punch line: "When you don't know what to do, you do what you can."

I'd be remiss were I not also to say that these folks are also involved in all manner of good deeds in Kentucky–from work with cultural groups to working in schools. My discovery of this gem of an album gives truth to the old proverb "better late than never." Like that old saw from Chaucer, Zoe Speaks gives us things that are both time-tested and timeless.

Rob Weir


Ansel Adams Show at MFA is Glorious!

Ansel Adams in Our Time
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Through February 24, 2019

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is probably the most famous American photographer not named Dorothea Lange. Is there a dorm in any college in North America that doesn’t sport at least one poster of one of his Yosemite Half Dome shots? You know Adams’ work. Or at least you think you do.

An exhibition at Boston’s MFA focuses on Ansel Adams, his predecessors, and contemporary photographers inspired by him. It was instructive to see the work of earlier artists, especially Eadward Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan. In like fashion, more recent shutterbugs such as Binh Danh, Mark Klett, Catharine Opie, and Victoria Samburnaris have created some interesting offshoots that owe a debt to Adams. But the overwhelming feeling one gets upon seeing the MFA’s high quality prints can be summed by saying, he was Ansel Adams and they were/are not.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever clicked a shutter; it’s simply the case that Adams was to the camera what Segovia was to Spanish guitar. I had the experience of walking into the first gallery and putting my own camera back into its bag. It took me a solid 30 minutes before I overcame the feeling that trying to capture anything I saw would amount to sacrilege. What an amazing body of work from a guy who started with a Brownie box camera.

Adams quickly ditched the Brownie and worked with 8 x 10 full frames, Hasslebads, various 4 x 5s, and an array of 35mm cameras. He was a legendary workhorse—perhaps a holdover from being a hyperactive child—who was known to spend weeks in the darkroom to get a single image that pleased him. Remember, in those days that meant using physical tools to dodge and burn small sections of an image. Speaking of work, the MFA has some home movie footage of Adams and associates hauling heavy equipment through the snow so that he could perch precariously on a ridge and get the shots of Yosemite he imagined. He met his wife, Virginia Best, on an outing to Yosemite, but one is tempted to engage in cheap psychology and assert that the park was actually the love of his life. He certainly spent much of his time shooting it, working with (or in opposition to) the National Park Service (NPS), and writing about Yosemite’s glories. He was a member of the Sierra Club and was an environmentalist long before that term came into vogue.

There are certain Adams images that have been endlessly reproduced, such as his Half Dome at Yosemite shots. Others in this category include images he took of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, his portrait of Orville Cox and Georgia O’Keeffe (1937), “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), “The Tetons and the Snake River” (1942), and “Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park” (1942). When you see these printed in large formats, you feel as if you are really seeing these for the first time. Take “Moonrise,” for instance. We have long known that it is a masterwork in tonality–and Adams pioneered a zone system for getting those tones–but we also see in much greater detail that Hernandez, New Mexico, is a windblown collection of hardscrabble farming and poverty.

Adams intended us to see the injustices of Manzanar and the despair of Hernandez. When he was four, an earthquake shook his parents home in the San Francisco Bay. Adams was thrown to the ground and broke his nose. As he joked thereafter, from that point on he, like his nose, leaned to the left. We seldom see Adams’ more political wok. The MFA has an Adams image of a political campaign handbill juxtaposed with a circus poster, a wry reminder that during and after the Great Depression, he was leery of mainstream politicians. Later in his life, Adams took photographs of freeways and interstate highways. These images are at once eye-popping in their geometric symmetry, we also see how all of this was out of sync with Adams’ desire to preserve mature. He often criticized the NPS for what he called its “resortism” approach to national parks.

If I had to pick a single Adams nature picture as my favorite, it would be “The Tetons and the Snake River,” not one of his Yosemite images. Apparently others think so as well, as its one of the 150 images aboard the Voyager space probe. It sent me on a journey of my own as I stood before it. I think it’s as close to a perfect shot of natural beauty and awe as humankind can render on film. I literally gasped when I saw it.

Move heaven and earth to see this show before it closes on February 24. By the way, I too started with a Brownie camera. He's Ansel Adams and I'm not!

Rob Weir