Charles Lane’s 1989 indie Sidewalk Stories doesn’t just hark back to The Kid; it formally revives the Chaplin classic in the street theater of Dinkins-era Greenwich Village. Buttressed by a down-and-out trombone solo that eventually warms itself up to a full symphony orchestra, Bill Dill’s Steadicam drifts curbside, taking in bums, hipsters, con men, junkies, and tourists, eventually settling on a scrappy, diminutive portrait artist (played by Lane) trying to work the block like everybody else. The sensation of seeing things unfold on a level playing field—simultaneously demeaning, voyeuristic, and naturally curious—helps reinforce the anonymity Lane proposes with the documentary-style snippets of life around town in the film’s introduction.
Lane’s nameless antihero comes upon a dark alley and sees one of his customers from earlier in the day—a young father prone to public braggadocio—getting roughed up by a couple of bookies. Lane can neither look away nor bring himself to intervene, and when the man is stabbed with a knife, Lane realizes the stranger’s tiny daughter has been in her stroller just a few feet away the entire time. The murderers flee the scene, but Lane gets a few final words from the victim before running off with the stroller as cops arrive to survey the man’s body. (The elaborate effort this requires is both harrowing and absurd, again tipping the film back somewhere between miserablism and slapstick.) The child is now his responsibility.
The urge to critique Sidewalk Stories as too cute for its content surrenders pretty early to the filmmaker’s winningly pointed sense of humor. By withholding actual dialogue (including intertitles), Lane is able to make a number of points both sophisticated and, despite odds, damn funny about poverty. When he realizes his fingerprints might be on the knife, his mind flash-forwards to a police lineup that sees him in a prison jumpsuit, sandwiched between two tall white businessmen. As his “guilt” is solidified, he takes a thuggish drag on a cigarette, following sentencing in a gloriously old-fashioned Hollywood tableaux—and then Lane snaps back into the real world. The film has just a few of these interior visions, and Lane uses them to depict his character as no less conflicted or brave than anybody else.
After briefly flirting with the idea of abandoning the dead man’s daughter, Lane takes her home to his factory squat. Their relationship prevents Sidewalk Stories from ever getting too lofty in its connotations, because Lane mines every step of the way for still more laughs. (Set up on two cots in a homeless shelter, he ties a rope around his neck and instructs her to tug if she wakes up during the night.) The easy-come, easy-go nature of Marc Marder’s score is a perfect match for Lane’s wobbly elasticity as a hero: ominous slap-bass sketches during the murder scene, glockenspiels at bedtime, or flamenco guitar when Lane is—with the toddler’s help—wooing a gorgeous customer (Sandye Wilson). When they bump into each other at her work (managing a baby store), she sweetly looks the other way after noticing the socks and sweaters bulging from his pockets.
The filmmaker doesn’t often lean on the old-school close-up, opting instead to paint his characters’ arguments, negotiations, and meet-cutes within the aforementioned widescreen panoramas—threatening to shuffle any passerby into the drama, and often doing so. Lane’s follies are enmeshed within bigger pictures of reality, reestablishing the film’s thesis of comedy as a mode of survival; diverting his viewers time and again from the grimness of the film’s scenario, Lane actually manages to reinforce it, driving the stakes higher. His frames create a wild spontaneity that can morph from riveting to fun to tense and alien in the space of a half-block, making Sidewalk Stories as emblematic a New York film as there is.