Blog Directory CineVerse: Walk a mile in my silent shoes

Walk a mile in my silent shoes

Thursday, July 29, 2021

African-American filmmaker Charles Lane does more than pay tribute to Charles Chaplin and his film The Kid with Lane’s Sidewalk Stories. His black-and-white silent comedy serves as a time capsule showcase for New York City and its diverse occupants and neighborhoods in the late 1980s and demonstrates that a fully realized artistic vision can be achieved successfully without sound or color, especially if you give the audience characters and situations they can appreciate. CineVerse metaphorically walked the concrete and steel streets of the Big Apple last week in its examination of this picture (click here to listen to a recording of our group discussion) and arrived at the following observations.

What struck you as surprising, curious, fulfilling, or out of the ordinary about Sidewalk Stories?

  • It’s both a black-and-white and silent film in the modern age of cinema, one of only a handful of this type to be made in the sound era of the last 90 years.
  • The filmmakers choose not to even use dialogue cards in between shots, forcing us to pay closer attention to the character’s actions and body language and even read lips to some extent – essentially requiring active participation from the viewer, who must learn things in context.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “I think perhaps the silent format inspires us to participate more directly in the movie. A sound film comes to us, approaches us - indeed, it sometimes assaults us from the screen. But a silent film stays up there on the glowing wall, and we rise up to meet it. We take our imagination and join it with the imagination of the filmmaker."
  • Director/actor Charles Lane has plenty of opportunities to mine comedy gold and evoke bigger laughs via Chaplin tricks like slapstick and sight gags, but he chooses not to go as much for the funnybone as for the heart.
  • The success of this movie, and our interest in it, depends a great deal on the chemistry between the artist and the little girl (played by Lane’s real-life daughter), who is irresistibly adorable and perfect for the scenes she’s in.
  • This picture was filmed over only 15 days on a $200,000 budget, yet the filmed locations include a great cross-section of memorable New York sites and areas.
  • While Lane infuses sentimentality into this story, it’s not saccharine sweet. For instance, the ending remains ambiguous: it’s not clear if he and the store owner end up together or how the little girl grows up. Instead, the filmmakers leave us with thoughts of the underprivileged and societal castoffs, who are given the last word – literally.

Themes at work

  • The voicelessness of the homeless and underprivileged. The movie is making a statement about how the struggles of the homeless and poor aren’t being heard or paid attention to by society. Interestingly, the film remains completely wordless until the last scene, in which the voices of the destitute and displaced are given volume by the filmmakers.
  • “Comedy as a mode of survival,” according to Slant magazine critic Steve Macfarlane. Telling this tale straight without humor and exaggerated comedic effect would be powerfully depressing for the characters as well as the audience. “Diverting his viewers time and again from the grimness of the film’s scenario, Lane actually manages to reinforce it, driving the stakes higher,” Macfarlane continues.
  • Everyone can make a difference in the lives of others, regardless of class, race, or clout. A seemingly insignificant street peddler proves that, despite his lack of resources or parental know-how, he can salvage a tragic situation and assume the responsibility of caring for a young temporarily orphaned child.
  • The tapestry of intersecting and interesting lives found in a big urban melting pot. The artist isn’t the only colorful and attention-grabbing character in this movie. There is also the street dancer, street magician, rival artist bully, the pair of hoodlums, and the store owner who falls for the artist.

Similar works

  • The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times, and other works by Charles Chaplin featuring the Little Tramp character
  • The Artist
  • Films and shorts starring and directed by Buster Keaton
  • Midnight Cowboy

Other films directed by and/or starring Charles Lane

  • True Identity
  • Posse
  • The Mind

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