In 1977, Charles Lane wrote, directed, and starred in a half-hour student film called “A Place In Time,” about a street artist who witnesses a murder, then feels so guilty about doing nothing that he risks his life and livelihood the next time he sees a crime. Lane shot the film in black and white, with no dialogue and no inter-titles, but with a fully orchestrated, old-timey score by Marc Marder. “A Place In Time” is unfocused, with lengthy, rambling digressions into the artist’s love life, but it does what Lane meant it to do: It’s a strikingly modern revival of a lost cinematic art.
Lane repeated the experiment 12 years later with Sidewalk Stories, one of the cleverest independent films of the 1980s, a decade when directors like Lane frequently popped up out of nowhere with an arthouse hit, then sometimes faded right back into obscurity. Once again, Lane works in black and white, with no dialogue or inter-titles—save for a cacophony of voices in a powerful final scene—while leaning on another rich Marder score to help express the meaning and milieu. And once again, he cast himself as a nameless artist, working and also living on the streets. But in Sidewalk Stories, after The Artist witnesses a murder, the plot takes a different turn. The dead man has a toddler-aged daughter, now abandoned, whom the artist looks after while trying to find her mother. Lane doubles down on his Chaplin homage in Sidewalk Stories, going full The Kid.
As with “A Place In Time,” the silent-movie conceit isn’t just an exercise. The earlier short was partly about people not noticing crime, and Sidewalk Stories is about how New York’s homeless don’t have a voice. Lane made the lower-class backdrops of a Chaplin comedy real and relevant to 1989, sketching out a documentary portrait of New York at the end of the 1980s, similar to how the old Hollywood silents doubled as a record of Los Angeles in the 1920s. Lane shot the movie all over the city: in the financial district, where men in fancy suits fight for cabs; in the theater district, where an ad for Cats hangs overhead; in the Village, where artists and performers line up to work for tips in front of homemade banners protesting gentrification; and in the crumbling abandoned building where The Artist squats. The well-dressed and the indigent share the same spaces in Sidewalk Stories, and one of the movie’s points is that the former try very hard not to hear the latter.
But it isn’t just the ingenious packaging of the pointed social message that makes Sidewalk Stories so effective. Marder’s music masterfully touches on urban funk, classical minimalism, light European cafe music, flute-jazz, and vintage Hollywood film scores, reflecting New York’s diversity in a way that other films at the time weren’t acknowledging. And the interplay between Lane and his real-life daughter Nicole Alysia—who plays the foundling—is touchingly tender. Lane doesn’t do many silent-movie “gags” per se, but he plays the hell out of the Chaplin-esque pathos, showing The Artist and his tiny new guest just trying to find a safe space for themselves in a city that doesn’t seem to want them.
Like “A Place In Time,” Sidewalk Stories has a romantic subplot, as The Artist spends time with a well-off small-business owner who doesn’t know he’s homeless. The storyline is both another Chaplin nod—shades of City Lights—and an example of how Lane tries to make the movie more about class than race. The Artist’s love interest is black and rich. The crooks who try to steal his meager possessions (including the little girl) are poor and white. Meanwhile, The Artist walks past new apartment buildings advertising rents starting at $1,000 a month, and when the child scribbles on his sketchpad, dapper yuppies come by and offer money for her “primitivist art.” Lane approaches New York’s unbalanced, inhumane economy the same way he approaches filmmaking: by putting a new frame around familiar sights, and forcing the audience to reconsider them.
In addition to adding “A Place In Time,” the Blu-ray of the newly 2K digitally restored Sidewalk Stories includes a commentary track and interview with Lane and Marder. They talk at length about the choices they made with this film, like avoiding larger-than-life silent-movie gestures, and not putting “Lane” at the end of Nicole’s name, so people wouldn’t know she was Lane’s daughter, and would be able to see her as a character.