Sidewalk Stories

August 9, 2012

Sidewalk Stories is a good example of how to get a start in the movie business. If you can’t get anybody else to finance your movie, bankroll it yourself.

Or, in this case, have your lawyer bankroll it for you. Writer-director Charles Lane, a struggling film-school graduate, had tried for years to get a feature film off the ground. His lawyer, Howard Brickner, a longtime friend and booster, finally offered to put up $200,000 of his own money to see the film made. (Brickner is credited as executive producer on Sidewalk Stories.)

The film’s cost, $200,000, is not a lot of money in movie terms, but it was enough for Lane to put together this very simple black-and-white film, shot on the streets of New York last winter. It’s an informal remake of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, but set in the cold world of today’s homeless.

Lane plays the lead role, a street artist (he draws portraits of passersby) who stumbles across a child and must care for her, despite the fact that his home is a boarded-up room in an abandoned building. He also meets an attractive woman (Sandye Wilson) who turns out to be wealthy, which throws him for a rather considerable loop.

The movie plays out some very modest scenes in appealing ways. The most audacious element of the movie is that it is a silent film; almost no dialogue is heard (though the music by Marc Marder ably fills the soundtrack).

It is strongest at its beginning and end: The film opens with some sharp glimpses of New York in motion, a bustle that leads to a long tracking shot of the street artists at work, where we eventually discover Lane and his sketch pad. The ending finally allows words, spoken by a group of the homeless, who circle around trying to make their voices heard.

Sidewalk Stories has its weakest link in Lane’s casting of himself in the lead role. He isn’t a particularly animated presence, and most of his performance is appropriated from Chaplin. Yet his sense of pantomime is much more obvious than Chaplin’s ever was, as though he didn’t quite trust the audience to understand what was going on.

But this is still a brave piece of work. Charles Lane will be interesting to watch, particularly if, as he has promised, he stays behind the camera.

First published in the Herald, November 24, 1989

The movie’s been getting some renewed love of late, and IMDb says he’s working on a couple of directing projects. Lane directed True Identity for Disney, which flopped, and the directing credits have been scarce since then.