Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories, which had its New York premiere twenty years ago today, is a brilliant piece of work that has been almost completely abandoned and forgotten. It has never received a home-video release of any kind in America (apparently Germany put out a videotape long ago) and has been all but unheralded except by Roger Ebert (who showed it at his Overlooked Film Festival in 2000). If you stumble across any opportunity to see it, please do so.
Except for an expressive score by Marc Marder — the soundtrack album seems easier to come by than the film is — Sidewalk Stories is a silent movie; it has almost no dialogue, not even any intertitles, and was shot in black and white. It is set among the homeless in New York City, and Lane has said his intent was to tell a silent story about those denied a voice. It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a natural approach to shoestring filmmaking: You don’t have to worry about recording sound or actors blowing their lines. There have been other silent films during the era of talkies, most notably Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain (among others in his filmography), but Sidewalk Stories is neither a spoof nor a film-geek homage — yes, it unavoidably nods to Chaplin, but its use of silent techniques seems organic to the story.
Lane himself plays The Artist, a sidewalk portraitist who lives in a condemned church. One of the first shots in the movie is a slow tracking shot taking in a variety of street artists and performers, all vying for the attention (and spare change) of passersby. The Artist is set up mere feet away from a much taller competitor, who invites him none too cordially to shove off. In this exchange, as in most of the other conversations in the film, gestures do some of the work but not all; we don’t pick up exactly what’s being said, but we get the gist. Soon enough, The Artist finds himself the custodian of a toddler (played by Lane’s daughter Nicole Alaysia), and he has to find ways to keep her fed and warm in the cold city (how cold? He doesn’t have a fridge, so he keeps his milk chilled by storing it next to a window in the room he’s got set up in the church).
We’re aware pretty early on that Sidewalk Stories isn’t to be taken strictly literally. Even though Lane is dealing with real social-urban issues, he claims the right to embellish and stylize, like Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing earlier the same year, which controversially featured no crackheads on its hot summer block. Lane is trying to get at universal truths by way of whimsy and pathos. Most often we roll with it; sometimes, as when the toddler’s mother simply walks away and leaves her child in the custody of the abusive, gambling father (who gets stabbed to death soon after), we say “Wait a minute…” But we see that the important thing is somehow getting the toddler into The Artist’s care. A cutie, she manages to charm most every adult she encounters, including a saleswoman (Sandye Wilson) who also takes a liking to the shy Artist.
The movie could be G-rated if not for a fleeting view of Wilson’s breasts during a fantasy sequence and a sprinkling of rude words during the final scene, in which Lane brings up the soundtrack to let us hear the homeless demanding change or muttering madly to themselves. Ebert felt this touch was unnecessary, but I see the point of it; the whole movie has been about people trying to survive without a voice — and it’s no accident that most of the homeless we see are, like Lane, African-American — and here Lane restores their voice. It’s a harsh reminder to an upscale white audience that homelessness isn’t some harmless, quirky malady that can be enjoyed from a safe aesthetic remove at a film festival or an art-house theater (or on PBS, which aired the film once); it’s real and dangerous and sad.
Directors have gone on to far more prosperous careers with far less impressive debuts than Charles Lane’s. After Sidewalk Stories, Lane helmed the 1991 Lenny Henry vehicle True Identity, which tanked at the box office; he then directed “Hallelujah,” a 1993 installment of American Playhouse, and has fallen silent since, though the IMDb informs me that he has two projects in pre-production. I’d like to think that’s true. Many African-American filmmakers whose names aren’t Spike Lee or Tyler Perry have fallen by the wayside or seen years falling off the calendar between films — Charles Burnett, Bill Duke, Darnell Martin, Carl Franklin, the Hughes brothers, Kasi Lemmons — and Lane has always seemed one of the saddest casualties, an artist who aimed high in his first film (a black-and-white silent, how uncommercial can you get?) and has presumably paid for it ever since.
I have no idea who has the rights to Sidewalk Stories. The long-defunct Island Pictures distributed it theatrically in the States, but other films under their umbrella have since been snapped up and put out on DVD, like Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law or Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. This lively forgotten film, which says so much without speaking, is certainly worthy of DVD salvation. Criterion, are you listening?