Writer/director/actor Charles Lane’s magical “Sidewalk Stories” has been newly restored, having been unseen for more than two decades–it was never released on DVD or home video–despite having won the Prix du Public at Cannes in 1989, where it received a 15-minute standing ovation.
A black & white silent comedy (without even a single inter title), “Sidewalk Stories” opens with cityscapes and crowd shots (reminiscent of the work of Berenice Abbott and Paul Strand), a very funny fight over a taxi by men in suits and a tracking shot of a juggler, magician, ventriloquist, Lane’s portrait sketch artist and a nearby burly competitor, all eking out a living on an ungentrified West Village Street.
After seeing her gambler father stabbed, Lane’s character (Artist) rescues a small girl (played by Lane’s own two-year old daughter, Nicole Alysia) whom he’d recently drawn. Hidden in her stroller, she escapes the attention of the murders.
An homage to Chaplin’s “The Kid” and its own wonderful universe, “Sidewalk Stories” tells its story in endlessly inventive images, ably assisted by Marc Marder’s perfect score, following Lane as he cares for the toddler while trying to locate her mother and shyly attempts to strike up a romance with a pretty store owner.
Lane left a camera on a tripod in his house for several weeks before shooting so that his daughter would ignore its presence when they were making the film. Nicole Alysia (now in graduate school studying child psychology) is a natural, irresistible (but not cloying or precious), in a tutu, trying to learn to wink, banging on a table in the library (the soundtrack features a screeching, discordant piano) and Lane dances when he pushes her in her stroller.
And in the end Lane has it both ways: “Sidewalk Stories” remains a lovely and moving fable of a homeless artist, squatting in a crumbling abandoned building and a little girl he rescues; but the filmmaker is too aware to totally romanticize marginal lives and at the last moment makes an unexpected change, in a sense flipping a switch, and foregrounds the harshness of his street people’s reality.
“Sidewalk Stories” will open at Film Forum on Friday, November 8. Q&A with Charles Lane at the 8:10 pm show and on Sunday, November 10, at the 4:35 pm show.