In an interview at the 2011 New York Film Festival, Michel Hazanavicius cited a largely forgotten film as a key inspiration for his Oscar-winning silent movie The Artist. Shot in black and white and almost entirely free of diegetic sound, the film, Sidewalk Stories, was the debut feature of New York filmmaker Charles Lane. At its screening at Cannes in 1989, it reportedly received an extended ovation, and a small New York release followed later that year, with a limited wider run in 1990. But after that, the movie was not available on home video in the U.S. It was re-released in France in 2002—perhaps where Hazanavicius caught it—and now finally returns home, to New York’s Film Forum, in a 2k digital restoration thanks to Carlotta Films (also a French outfit).
Shot quickly and cheaply in the winter of 1987, this consistently imaginative and enjoyable film follows a homeless Greenwich Village street artist (played by Lane) who forms a bond with a toddler after he witnesses her father being murdered. While evading the police (his fingerprints are on the knife), he cares for the young innocent, and embarks on a tentative, and touchingly improbable, romance with a beautiful businesswoman (Sandye Wilson) who comes to sit for a painting. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, the film moves with a clean, well-paced narrative, leaning on Marc Marder’s flexible score—which runs the gamut from lush orchestral arrangements, to faux mariachi, and pre-Seinfeld slap-bass riffs—for emotional shading. The diminutive, wide-eyed Lane is an expressive physical comedian, while his relationship with the toddler (played by Lane’s own daughter, which explains their magnetic bond) is especially moving.
Yet Sidewalk Stories is far flintier than any top-line synopsis might suggest, and its re-release feels particularly timely given the continuing plight of New York’s multitudinous homeless. The issue of New York’s class and wealth divide, even before today’s extremes, is made apparent from the film’s opening, which cuts from Wall Street types going about their frantic commutes, to the story’s central locale: the bustling strip on Sixth Avenue between 3rd and 4th Streets next to the basketball courts and opposite the Waverly Cinema (now IFC Center). Here tramps and street artists, including Lane’s never-named character, are hustling and grifting to survive, and it is largely in this world that the film remains. Reminiscent of the unnamed protagonist of Invisible Man, Lane’s artist holes up on the fringes of society—inside an abandoned church—stealing electricity to illuminate his spartan existence. In the film’s final moments, ambient sound unexpectedly bleeds through, and we hear the clamoring of the collected homeless—suddenly, literally, given a voice.
The effect is startling, but till then the quietly radical nature of Sidewalk Stories lies in the dialectical tension between its whimsically nostalgic formal approach and its bold representation of pressing contemporary issues. While The Artist was set in the safely fossilized world of silent-era filmmaking, there’s something genuinely strange about seeing New York—one of the world’s most famously rambunctious cities—drained of sound and color. Within this monochrome metropolis, Lane engages with the issue of discrimination on the basis of race, and frequently populates the frame with political messages: a huge banner, behind the sidewalk’s row of street performers, calling for the preservation of the Greenwich Village Waterfront; or a Keith Haring poster bearing an anti-Apartheid message, prominently displayed in the Upper West Side apartment of the artist’s love interest.
Elsewhere, the film is slyly satirical about the intersection of art and commerce. Midway through, the toddler’s doodles become an immediate sensation, fetching high prices. This could be read as a throwaway gag, but is more likely a direct dig at the increasingly infantilized commercial product that had come to represent much American cinema in the Reagan era—at the same time as opportunities for defiantly mold-breaking black filmmakers remained limited. Of course, Spike Lee had made a breakthrough in black-focused American storytelling, but in spite of, say, Do The Right Thing’s political boldness and ambiguity, it used unabashedly populist form and technique to convey its messages. In his 1993 book Framing Blackness: The African American Image on Film, Ed Guerrero astutely places Sidewalk Stories alongside the likes of Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street (89) and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (90) in the small band of artistically daring films of the era to offer refreshingly original visions of black life.
Lane’s follow-up to Sidewalk Stories was True Identity, a bizarre comedy starring British comedian Lenny Henry as a black actor who disguises himself as a white man in order to hide from the Mafia. Released in 1991, and far more conventional, the movie had some intriguing things to say about the representation of race in gangster films, but it failed to find a substantial audience. And that, in terms of feature filmmaking, was it for Lane (though at least one project has been reported to be in development). Such is the freshness, poignancy, and subtly subversive nature of his debut film, it must go down as a real shame that we have not seen (or heard) more from him.