In the alleyway that stretches from James Street to Cherry Street between Second and Third avenues, a rat pokes its head out of a hole, scurries along a wall straight through two black plastic traps, and ducks back into the ground.
"This alley stinks!" someone complains.
It's also picturesque, with twilight pouring in beyond the brick buildings and a Dumpster adorned with the minimal tag "NC-17." Linas Phillips holds up his hand, trying to communicate quiet. "We're all here on this earth for reasons, and we're all here in this alleyway for different reasons," he says.
This is all the direction that the actors, who are homeless, will hear as a group: "When you're reading this speech, tap into the pride you have in yourself." The speech is Bobby Kennedy's "Ripple of Hope" address given at Cape Town University in 1966. Phillips refuses to say "action," but the speech begins.
Phillips is an unnerving person. Some of this can't be helped—he has a broad face, pale but ruddy complexion, and wide-spaced, arctic-blue eyes that stare and stare and stare. But his art is disconcerting, too. With both Walking to Werner and his work-in-progress Great Speeches from a Dying World—both of which could be classified as experimental documentaries—Phillips deliberately pushes his audiences to the point of discomfort, whether aesthetically (is this shot intimate or just indulgent?) or ethically (is it okay to pay addicts to appear in a film about their lives—cash that they could then use to maintain their addictions?).
Despite Phillips's determination to make his audiences uncomfortable, he has a strange, seemingly magical knack for drawing his subjects out of their shells. In Walking to Werner, he walked all the way from Seattle to Los Angeles in imitation of a journey his hero Werner Herzog had made 30 years before. The fact of the stunt—ludicrous, maniacal, edging on embarrassing both for its egotism and its idolatry—would have overwhelmed the film had it not been for the people Phillips encountered along the way. Whether they're hanging out on their porches or engaging in obsessive treks of their own, these incidental prophets share their stories and ultimately become the story itself.
You'd expect Walking to Werner to be about the guy doing the walking, and in some ways you'd be right. The camera, often held out at arm's distance and aimed at Phillips's own pained or ecstatic expression, hovers so close it can feel claustrophobic. You wonder why you're being forced to keep the company of a madman, someone who thinks it's a smart idea to walk a thousand miles to pay tribute to and possibly meet an eccentric Bavarian filmmaker. Then, starting in tiny Naselle, in southwestern Washington, you're rescued from the myopia. Perhaps "saved" is the better term. An evangelical Christian girl gives Phillips water and, casting her eyes heavenward, forecasts that he may not find what he's looking for at the end of the journey. She's incredibly sweet, but she's eerily preoccupied by a spiritual realm that doesn't have anything to do with the mechanics of getting to L.A. and stalking a filmmaker.
Or does it? In the very next segment of the film, just across the border in Oregon, Phillips receives a voice mail from Werner Herzog, via Scarecrow Video's Norman Hill. Herzog is in Southeast Asia filming Rescue Dawn and won't be at home when Phillips arrives in L.A. "Walk for some other reason," Herzog tells his disciple. And Phillips finds one. Throughout his pilgrimage, he encounters people who have been driven to the margins of society by crimes (their own and others') or serious physical injuries or mental illness or merely the California sunshine, taking refuge in some variety of spiritual belief that they're happy to share with a traveler with wild eyes and flowing blond hair. By the time Phillips reaches Southern California, he's collected what seems like a comprehensive catalog of spiritual life on the West Coast of the United States, from a Christian fitness fanatic to a New Age beach bum, with more desperate or rigorous variations in between.
One could argue that Phillips is able to get close to his marginalized or itinerant subjects because he is not unlike them. He didn't necessarily intend to move to Seattle, but he was working with the beloved local dance ensemble 33 Fainting Spells (Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson) in New York and they invited him to come out for a performance. Until he finished editing Walking to Werner, he was staying in a little sunroom in Dayna Hanson's house, and since then he's stayed with friends and in some other places that weren't zoned residential. He lived in his office at Northwest Film Forum for two months, unbeknownst to the staff. Recently, he tried to relocate to Boston, but a love affair there didn't work out. A leg injury has put strain on his finances (like many full-time artists, he's uninsured). He isn't destitute or homeless largely, it seems, because of his sheer determination to make art and films.
Also like his subjects, Phillips is spiritual. The film he's making now is "a meditation on what homelessness is like," and represents an urgent need to empathize with the dispossessed. "I'm not a Christian filmmaker," he explains. "But with this film, I guess I'm getting close." In part, he's interested in homeless people because they represent a form of society that most of us bother to imagine only in science fiction (such as Children of Men, which he loves). "What if there were an apocalypse? You would have to start relating to people you never would have spoken to before. For these people, it's already after the apocalypse." Events in their lives—for example, Toney Smith, the other guy in the photo on this page and one of the homeless men in Great Speeches from a Dying World, was incarcerated at age 15 for supposedly having foreknowledge of a crime, then was infected with HIV in jail—have been that traumatic.
Phillips explains that a professor in college (he graduated from the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU) once told a photographer friend of his that he should never take pictures of homeless people: "It's been done." In Great Speeches from a Dying World, Phillips is interested in doing things that have been done—getting reacquainted with phrases so common that your eyes would normally slide over them, your ears would barely acknowledge their substance. Speeches like the Sermon on the Mount (Phillips rented a van and took nine homeless men and women to Mount Rainier to reenact it) or Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" are so familiar that they have been reduced to cliché. Phillips wants to reinvest those words—and the people reciting them—with meaning.
But perhaps the best thing about Phillips's work is the methods he finds to inject humor into the gravest situations. The best device in Walking to Werner is the use of commentary tracks by Werner Herzog—from DVDs of Herzog's films—about the search for "ecstatic truth." Laid over the inevitably punier quest of Linas Phillips trudging to Los Angeles in a floppy hat, the appropriated commentary vacuums out any trace of pretension, at once exulting and undercutting the trials you see onscreen. Phillips has cleverly stacked the deck so that Herzog, unwitting, saves Phillips from himself.