Charlie Chaplin has been reincarnated. As a black man. His modern problems have less to do with industrialization than the plight of the homeless, violent crime and unemployment. In Charles Lane's enchanting Sidewalk Stories, the gentleman tramp lives on as Chaplin envisioned him, "a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure."
Writer-director-actor Lane's poetic homage is a silent classic for troubled times. Its present-day New York - where investment bankers march drone-like on Wall Street, where muggers lurk in alleyways, where the disenfranchised sleep on steam grates - is a far cry from the promise the city held in Chaplin's The Immigrant.
Lane plays a sketch artist working in Greenwich Village. His home is an abandoned tenement where he has jerry-rigged a couple of electric lights above a torn mattress.
One night, while passing an alleyway, he witnesses a knifing. Near the victim is a tyke in a stroller. Lane decides to care for the tot and find her mother.
Through this simple structure, Lane explores the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, and the disdain many wealthy New Yorkers have for their less fortunate neighbors. His movie is populated by mothers in furs and street people in rags. His Manhattan is one Chaplin might not recognize, with patrol cars' flashing lights playing over garbage-strewn streets and graffiti-covered walls.
Sidewalk Stories is an auspicious feature debut. It comes 13 years after Lane won a student Academy Award for his silent short A Place in Time. Between the two films was an unsuccessful attempt to make another movie and, apparently, an intensive study by Lane of Chaplin's art.
Lane is a superb Chaplinesque foil. He is small and wiry, with
close-cropped hair and huge expressive eyes that serve the same function as Chaplin's wriggling mustache. Lane lacks Chaplin's dexterity but he projects his predecessor's innocence and good nature.
Lane, like Chaplin, sees comedy as a means of addressing the ills of society. His artist, like Chaplin's tramp, immigrant and worker, is an outsider unable to attain social status or material comforts.
In Sidewalk Stories, Lane is befriended by a store clerk (Sandye Wilson) who graciously overlooks the shoplifted baby clothes sticking from his jacket. She invites him to her apartment for dinner. But when he arrives, the doorman refuses to allow him to enter. The matter is resolved in broad Chaplinesque style, and Lane is treated to amorous delights that mark the 75 years between Chaplin's and Lane's generation.
Sidewalk Stories exhausts its comedic potential before it reaches its resolution. Its ending, with the pleas of the homeless rising like a Greek chorus, is overstated.
Yet there is no denying this picture's charm. Of particular note is Marc Marder's eloquent score that uses classical, jazz, rap, funk, blues and rock music to serve in place of the film's dialogue. In addition, Bill Dill's black-and-white photography is as evocative as Gordon Willis' work in Manhattan in which New York was as much a character as the actors.
Sidewalk Stories is a comedy of forgotten pleasures. It harkens back to the purest form of cinema to silently record what passes for society today.
MOVIE REVIEW Sidewalk Stories +++ Director: Charles Lane Cast: Charles Lane, Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, Charles Lane, Darnell Williams Screenplay: Charles Lane Rating: R; nudity, violence Running time: 97 minutes Excellent+++++; Very good++++;
Good+++; Mediocre++; Poor+