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Sidewalk Stories review: buried treasure from silent cinema’s recent past

Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as The Artist and The Kid Photographer: Bill Dill
Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as the Artist and the Child. Photographer: Bill Dill

I barely knew a thing about Charles Lane this time last week. But since Saturday night I have been trying to find out as much as I can. Twenty five years ago, Lane directed a modern silent film of great style and bounteous charm, which was warmly received at the time, but has barely been heard from since. Like so much in the history of silent film, Sidewalk Stories (1989) is buried treasure, though from a rather more recent past. The good news is that the tail end of 2014 may finally be the time when Sidewalk Stories gets its due. The likelihood is that you will get a chance to see it soon, and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity when it arises.

As a film student, Lane was apparently very sniffy about silents, but when a chum insisted that he catch a screening of The Gold Rush, he relented. Chaplin worked his magic, and Lane was hooked for life. The influence of Chaplin is powerfully strong in Sidewalk Stories, a silent black-and-white comedy shot on the streets of New York; Lane directs and stars in the film, which has more than a touch of The Kid about it. Lane plays a street artist, who sleeps rough in a derelict building in Greenwich Village (yes, you might say he was a tramp), but, through some convoluted circumstances finds himself in charge of a small child. No messing about: the Artist’s foldup easel looks uncannily like the window-repair kit Chaplin equips himself with in the earlier movie. It’s clear that Lane has an eye for the most devilish of details. Lane’s two-year-old daughter plays the Child, and although it seems strange to critique a toddler’s performance, she’s fantastic and of course, utterly adorable. Sandye Wilson, an elegant woman with a devastating smirk, plays the Artist’s bewildering and benevolent love interest. Lane’s character is a cheeky one, all right, and a dreamer too: a nonchalant riff on Chaplin’s Tramp, which retains the sweetness and the acrobatics of the original but with a pared-down ego. Lane’s Artist is a more of an everyman than a showstopping clown: a little guy in a zip-up denim shirt and cargo pants with neatly cropped hair. Perhaps it’s because the big city is just a wee bit more terrifying in the late 80s. The Manhattan of this movie is perniciously hostile: crushing Lane’s character, and maybe squashing his performance a little too.

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

No matter. Here’s why Sidewalk Stories is easily worth 97 minutes of your precious time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s very clever and it has a quite remarkable lightness of touch. There’s some virtuoso material here, including some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and (a first for a silent movie?) a fantasy slapstick sex nightmare. There’s not a single intertitle here either. Most impressive of all perhaps is a sustained tracking shot early on that takes us from one end of a street in the Village to another, from the panhandlers and street sleepers, to the Artist’s patch where he and his fellow dancers and magicians are busy making believe that they are anywhere but urban hell. There’s some comic business with a piece of string and two beds that is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad. I also enjoyed the way that a laugh-out-loud, but silly, gag at the start of the movie with yuppies grappling over a yellow cab (it’s the 80s, I’m allowed to call them yuppies) was replayed later on with a more sinister meaning. I particularly liked the fact that the second time around the carfight takes place during a chase that’s straight out of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy – Lane was clearly in close touch with his New York silent forebears.

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Silent films at Scalarama 2014: Sidewalk Stories, Caligari and more screen nationwide

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease

It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare. 
 
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
 
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi DriverSerpico and The French Connection.
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.

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