Filmmaker Charles Lane's star shines again with 'Sidewalk Stories' anniversary

Charles Lane in "Sidewalk Stories" ends up with a little girl, played by Lane's daughter Nicole.
Charles Lane in "Sidewalk Stories" ends up with a little girl, played by Lane's daughter Nicole.
Posted: June 25, 2014

Twenty-five years have gone by since Charles Lane joined the pantheon of great American filmmakers.

His entrée was Sidewalk Stories, a nearly silent, black-and-white masterwork about a homeless Greenwich Village street artist who becomes the inadvertent guardian of a child after her father is slain. Lane wrote, starred in, and directed what was greeted as a modern-city homage to Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. Critical plaudits came from the likes of Roger Ebert, and the film went on to win the Prix du Publique at Cannes, where the 12-minute ovation broke a record.

Then, fade to gray, for decades.

Lane now is 60, and finding himself back in the embrace of fans old and new. Last year, in advance of its quarter-century anniversary, Sidewalk Stories was digitally remastered and presented at the Tribeca Film Festival. On Wednesday, it will be shown in Philadelphia at International House - with Lane on hand.

The double treat is the doing of Michael Dennis' Reelblack, a Philadelphia film production company whose mission is, in part, to promote discoveries and rediscoveries of African American cinema. Few auteurs fit the criteria like Lane.

" Sidewalk Stories is a gem in black film's legacy, and Lane is a true pioneer of black indie film," says Dennis, who will lead a discussion with him at the screening.

Today, that innovator is an endearing gentleman who uses phrases like "cool beans," and lives a million cultural miles from Hollywood in Westchester County, N.Y.

When Sidewalk Stories was first released in 1989, reviewers made note of the echoes from 1921's The Kid, in which Chaplin's tenderhearted "Tramp" similarly looks after an abandoned child. "The Artist," the nameless character Lane created for himself, "was influenced by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd," he says. "The critics' comparison to Chaplin is apt, though the overwhelming majority of folks didn't realize that Sidewalk Stories is highly influenced, in spirit, by a little-known 1959 British film, Tiger Bay."

Spoken like the true student of film that he was at the State University of New York at Purchase, Class of 1980. There, Lane harbored an active dislike of silent film. Yet, after winning a Student Academy Award for a silent short titled Place and Time, he says, "I lost my snobbery and fell in love with the genre."

Sidewalk Stories' provenance, so the story goes, was a conversation that Lane, on his way home from a boxing match, had with a homeless man. With very little money and barely more than two weeks to shoot, he made his film.

Played out along New York's dirty Sixth Avenue and environs, Sidewalk has its sweet, slapstick moments - like when The Artist brings the lost toddler (Lane's own daughter, Nicole) into a kiddie boutique and shoplifts baby clothes. But, for the most part, Lane's vision of Manhattan 1989 - presented without intertitles - offers us the glorious grime of the time before gentrification and ouster of the 99 percent.

"The cold, harsh streets and the cynical 'me first' attitude of its denizens makes NYC as big a character as any I've written," Lane says. The Artist isn't goofily Tramp-ish. He's on the hunt nightly for a bed, while protesting the desecration of the city piers at the hands of condo developers. The film's bleakness is bolstered by torrid sexuality, the slaying that drives its story line, and a finale as vague as it is haunting - an ending that critics recently noted influenced director Michael Hazanavicius' 2011 Oscar-winning movie, The Artist.

" The Artist's success unintentionally placed a bright light on Sidewalk Stories," Lane says. "I consider its imitation of me very flattering, as I would hope Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton would accept mine of them."

In an era when black-themed films ranged from Breakin' to Do the Right Thing ("Unequivocally," Lane says, "Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It was a game-changer - the young, independent African American filmmaker was unleashed"), Sidewalk Stories was a dynamic entrant.

After its Cannes triumph, it was picked up by Chris Blackwell's Island Pictures, which was riven then by indecision over whether to develop as an art house or a mainstream company. Lane's film died - though not before he hooked up with Disney.

Initially, Lane wanted to direct an interracial love story that would be called Skins (before Spike Lee's Jungle Fever), about an Italian woman and an African American man (the story Lee went with). Instead, he says, he was talked into directing True Identity, starring black British comedian Lenny Henry masquerading as a white student. Disney also spoke of remaking Sidewalk Stories as a film with sound, color, and Tom Hanks. Nothing materialized, and Lane's quickly-ascended star descended.

"In truth, Spike and I had no beef," Lane says of Jungle Fever's similarities to Skins. As for Hanks, Disney wanted him "to make Sidewalk Stories without me, but he turned them down."

True Identity? A horrible flop. "I respect Disney," Lane says. "Without them, I wouldn't have learned the professional and life lessons I have. But my star was damaged by True Identity's lack of financial success, and work became somewhat scarce."

Lane has worked for various production companies - including Philadelphia's Banyan Productions from 2004 to 2008 - and made a few indie films since then. But with Sidewalk Stories' second-time-around acclaim as booster fuel, he is set produce several screenplays starting in December, including Yellow Tape ("a dramatic, romantic comedy, social commentary, murder mystery") and his comic Herman ("about an intersexed young man from Butte, Montana who comes to New York looking for true love").

" Sidewalk Stories' resurgence/renaissance," Lane says, "makes this all just a little more possible."

Sidewalk Stories

Screening at 7 p.m. Wednesday at International House, 3701 Chestnut St., followed by discussion with Charles Lane.

Tickets: $10. Information: 215-387-5125 or  www.ihousephilly.org.


 

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