WALKING TO WERNERNR
Film enthusiasts will appreciate Linas Phillips’ depth of knowledge and affection for German director Werner Herzog, which informs his long, arduous journey in Walking to Werner. Modeled after a 1974 documentary, in which Herzog trekked to see his sick friend, film critic Lotte Eisner, Walking contains moments of peculiar charm in between stretches of tiresome roaming.
Phillips’ walk from Seattle to Los Angeles to meet his idol starts without any promises by Herzog. Early on, in fact, Herzog tells Phillips in a phone message that he may be too busy to get together. But Phillips is undaunted and hits the road with only a few belongings and his strap-on camera. Along the way, the filmmaker meets interesting people, either those who let him sleep on their property or those who are on their own journeys. Meanwhile, the summit with Herzog seems less and less likely.
You’d have to be a little crazy (not unlike a Herzog protagonist) to dream up Walking to Werner, but Linas Phillips is also a grating personality, not a great traveling companion for the viewer. His monologues are more rambling rants than insightful commentary. At one point, he laughingly describes the odd way a child’s face looks, yet seems completely unaware that his own face (with his bugged-out eyes and puffy skin) looks odd, too. And his shoulder-strapped camera focuses more on his face than any part of the great outdoors, including the beautiful California coastline.
What saves Walking to Werner from complete self-indulgence is Phillips’ capacity to listen and learn from others, including the motley group of strangers he meets—a once-suicidal nurses’ aide, an alcoholic cyclist, a self-confessed murderer, and several homeless people. Thankfully, their stories are much more compelling than the interrogator’s, so when Phillips turns his camera away from himself and to them, his film becomes much more effective.
An interview with Herzog plays on the soundtrack during other parts of the film, which enlivens some of the dull spots where our clunky hero walks on highways and through farms and neighborhoods. It is understandable that the German director is put off by this sycophant and possible stalker. Though Herzog remains an absent referent, we more easily identify with him than with Phillips, who never adequately explains his mission. Frankly, Phillips seems like a mentally imbalanced man who forgot to take his meds.
Technically, the shaky handheld camerawork befits the subject matter, but the fancy split-screen bits are jarringly slick and showoffy. Justin Hubbard’s score echoes Leone-Morricone westerns more than Herzog’s films, and is used much too repetitively.
Had this film been made by someone else, it might have been profound. By the end of Walking to Werner, we are no worse off but we are not much better either.