Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Charles Lane, Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, Darnell Williams, Trula Hoosier
Written by: Charles Lane
Directed by: Charles Lane
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101
Date: 10/17/2014
IMDB

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Silent 'Sidewalks'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Arriving just a few months after Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories must have seemed like a step back, nostalgic rather than incendiary, although another look reveals it to be just as potent.

The film is shot in black-and-white and silent, with a lovely orchestral score. Lane plays a struggling street artist, a little bit smaller and kinder than those around him, and forever tucked into a denim jacket during what looks like a chilly New York winter. He witnesses the murder of a man in an alley and though he is unable to stop three tough-looking thugs, he is able to rescue the dead man's daughter, doing his best to take care of her in his quasi-homeless conditions (he has some humble rooms set up in an abandoned building).

The movie clearly pays homage to Chaplin's The Kid (1921), which treads dangerous territory, since Lane is nowhere near as graceful or as funny as Chaplin, nor is he anywhere near the poetic filmmaker that Chaplin was. But Lane does have his own good qualities, such as a general empathy. He never regrets his decision to take the girl, and looks at her with amazement and affection. (In Chaplin's film, the kid comes into his care as a baby, and then cuts to several years later, which avoids any potential second thoughts.) Lane's greatest moment comes when his face registers sadness only as he hugs the girl and his face is safely away from her; this shot was used for the film's poster and DVD cover.

Lane invents some decent gags and some interesting set-pieces (tying a rope between himself and the child at a homeless shelter, stealing a horse-drawn carriage, etc.), but none of them are as affecting as the view on the street, the acts of getting by as well as noticing others trying to get by. In one subplot, a beautiful, successful woman (Sandye Wilson) becomes interested in him; they kiss, and the artist has a fantasy sex sequence about her (the only reason this movie earned an "R" rating). This seems a little unrealistic, but I suppose Lane is allowed a little fantasy.

Overall, the movie is sweeter than it is funny, but it still works quite well, and it remains something of a small landmark in independent cinema and New York cinema, as well as African-American cinema. The film was recently restored, and Kino-Lorber has released a deluxe Blu-ray edition, complete a commentary track by Lane, a filmed interview, and an earlier short film by Lane, as well as a new trailer.

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