Just a little over a year ago, Elvis Mitchell was practically giddy when he brought Charles Lane out to the Bing Theatre at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In his three years of programming at the theater, Mitchell said there was no evening that he had been more excited to share with this audience than Lane’s 1989 film “Sidewalk Stories,” which probably felt as if it was a real discovery to even those who saw it upon its initial release since it had largely been out of circulation ever since. Ironically, it was the fact that it was a throwback to another era that has preserved its freshness, a silent portrait of a homeless street artist (played by Lane) barely scraping by in New York who takes in a young girl (Lane’s real-life daughter Nicole Alysia) he comes across without a father.
Yet as excited as both Mitchell and Lane appeared on this evening, the director recalled a time when the prospect of seeing a silent film was tantamount to torture as a student studying film theory at SUNY Purchase in the early 1970s.
“It was my technique to cut class on Monday nights because they were showing silent movies,” Lane said after the screening during an extensive Q & A. “So I’d go with my pal Joe Robinson, and we’d get some beers. [One night] I was ready to cut because they were showing ‘The Gold Rush.’ And he said, ‘The Gold Rush’? That’s a funny film.’”
When Robinson convinced Lane to stick around to see Charlie Chaplin’s Klondike exploits, it led the filmmaker to begin to reconsider what could be accomplished without dialogue, to the extent that when he began work in 1975 on his short “A Place in Time,” he reenvisioned the silent film as a way to convey a primal scream about social inequality, showing the struggle of those who don’t have a voice in his first appearance as the Tramp-like street artist he would return to in “Sidewalk Stories.” Both vibrant and poignant, the short and the subsequent feature are full of life, with nods to silent comedy forebears such as Chaplin and Harold Lloyd fueling their lively comic beats while the hard reality of living in a city that was itself approaching bankruptcy in the mid to late 1970s informs them in terms as stark as their elegiac use of black and white.
Naturally, then it is only appropriate that Lane will help close out the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s ongoing series “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986,” with a rare showing of “A Place in Time” accompanying an equally rare screening of Spike Lee’s first short “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” on February 19th in New York. When “Sidewalk Stories” was released last fall on Blu-ray and DVD, Lane spoke to me about seeing his films receive a new lease on life, how he came around to appreciating silent films and the additional challenges he placed on himself in making what would ultimately become truly indelible cinematic experiences.
What’s the last year been like?
It’s been amazing. [“Sidewalk Stories”] is 25 years old, and when it first came out in 1989, it was very, very exciting because a lot of people around the world embraced it. The amazing thing is that because it’s a silent film with a musical score, it’s not about reading subtitles, it’s a universal language, so the people in Germany embrace it as much as the people in France or in the United States or in Tokyo. But being on the road with it now, it’s very, very thrilling, because it’s gotten better reviews this time than the first time.
The thing that’s changed for me is [that while] I feel very fortunate that I made a film 25 years ago that isn’t dated and is potent still, it’s a double-edged sword because this is still about homelessness. That’s the downside of it. The subject matter is still here, and it’s probably more pervasive than it was in 1989, to be honest. That’s the part that isn’t really cool.
Was that always your way into the film?
Yeah, homelessness was the thing that made me make the film. It’s an old story that’s been told by me [before], but I was coming home from a boxing match, and I met a homeless guy on the subway. He looked at me. I looked at him, I looked away, then he moved a little closer. I thought, “Here it comes. He’s going to put the pinch on me.” He said to me, “Do you know who won the fight?” I was shocked that that’s what he asked me rather than “Do you have a quarter?”
Then on 14th Street in Manhattan, changing from the express train to the local train, I saw some people inside the subway terminal, lying down and sleeping on the bench, and then I was walking next to the curb going home and [there were] several cardboard boxes lying on the side of the street. One of the boxes suddenly moved. It was a [flat piece of] cardboard, two pieces covering a body, which I didn’t know at the time, that moved as I was passing, and I thought, “Whoa!” By the time I hit the door of my apartment where my wife and my little girl slept, I was like, “This is the film I want to make. A social commentary movie with comedy.” The social commentary always came first.
At the LACMA screening, you made it clear you detested silent films before making “A Place in Time.” What was it that clicked about the form once you came around on it?
I always did love Hitchcock, and he was the big proponent of the visual storytelling, pure cinema. I believed in that, but with sound, and deciding to challenge myself to do a silent film, which I hated basically, you’ve got to love it if you’re doing it. It’s like a parent and a child with special needs. I also wanted to make a silent film that had no subtitles because that was a challenge too. If I’m going to do it, I wanted it to be special and really flex my muscles, so that meant no subtitles. So my silent little movie, “A Place In Time,” had special needs, and I loved it, and by the time I got through it and got through it successfully, I said, “Whoa, this is not that bad at all, is it?” I won a Student Academy Award for it. I was like, “Whoa, there’s something to this silent thing.”
Even when making a feature, you didn’t resort to subtitles, even though you’ve said there were two places it would’ve really helped you out. Did that fuel more creativity in the storytelling?
It certainly did, and I don’t remember the two scenes, but it does force you to restructure some of the plot points of a particular scene or maybe invert it. [Once I made the decision not to use subtitles] I couldn’t go down that road because once you put a subtitle in a film that doesn’t have subtitles, you’re telling the audience, “I got into trouble. I don’t know how else to do it.” Both times, my first instinct was, “I can’t figure this out. I need subtitles here.” My second instinct was, “Are you fucking crazy? You can’t do subtitles.”
The long opening shot of the film seems every bit as bold, and I understand you wanted to do it the first day of shooting. Was that to instill confidence or just to get it out of the way?
It was a big risk doing a silent film, and we had a low budget, it was February, and it was icy cold. When the time came, I had been warned by a good friend of mine who was a cinematographer I went to college with, that I can’t do this film in this weather with this kind of budget because [on the first day] everybody’s going to be enthusiastic because they’re doing art, but on the second and third day, you’re going to have mutiny, and people are going to leave because the reality is going to set in. They’re going to leave and he said he couldn’t be there because it’s a fool’s mission that I’m on.
I was disappointed that he told me that. I wanted him to shoot the film because he had vowed in college that “When you make your first feature film, I’m going to shoot it,” and I thought, he has more experience than I do in the business, but I have to prove him wrong. So I started speaking to other people who had more experience than myself. Susan Seidelman [told me], the one thing was that you need to have good food, so my sister-in-law was a caterer at the time, so I employed her to do it, and the food was not only good. It was excellent. We had filet mignon for everyone, then we had the vegetarian thing going, so the food was really cool, and the crew responded to that.
But back to your point, I needed to impress us all, so there was the simple and intelligent way to do it, which is building up to [the difficult] stuff, but I was doing something unorthodox to begin with by making this film, so I thought, okay, this is a risk, but if we do the hardest thing first and we pull it off, then those bitches will be mine. That was my mentality. I knew I had a great crew. We just all hadn’t worked together as a unit, but if we can pull it off, then they’ll understand on the first day that there’s nothing that we can’t do. It was a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless, and we pulled it off.
My cameraman was with me because of his ambitions while we were talking about it on paper, but when we got out there in the cold, he said, “You know, Charlie, I know what you want to do, but maybe we should have some intercuts, some pop-in, some close-ups, just in case this whole thing doesn’t work, and then we can cut away.” I said, “I know, but that’s not what we want to do. Let’s do this again.” We started from point A, and we went through it a second time, and then he said, “Yeah, we had some mistakes, but we can do this.” We did the take about three or four times, and that was it. We had it. Everybody on the crew was happy. Everybody was ready. “Next shot! Next shot!” That’s what saved us — pulling off the seemingly impossible in the beginning and then knowing we can do anything.
It’s notable that Mark Marder, who composed music for the film, is on the commentary track for the Blu-ray. What was special about that collaboration?
I know how music is applied to silent films, but I’m a failed mediocre musician who can’t read music. I used to play drums and I’m a big fan of music, but I just don’t know how to apply it. I was trying to write a score for “A Place In Time” in college, and it was godawful, and I met Mark in 1973 and this was 1975 when I went to him and said, “Listen, I have this silent film. I want to write the score myself because I think it would be fun and it would make me grow as an artist, but can you do the notation? I will play it on the piano.” He said, “Yeah, I can do that.” So I had this tune that I had written, which was really simple, oversimplistic and not too good at all. He did the notes for it, and then he said, “You know, Charlie, I got stuff that I composed. Can I let you hear it? It’s not really that good but …”
So he let me hear one thing that he composed and I liked it very much, and then I then said, “You know, who am I fooling? Mark, why don’t you write the score to ‘A Place In Time’?” He said, “I don’t know how to do that.” And I said, “I know how to do it. It’s just that I can’t do it. It’s like coaches with gymnastics. They know how to coach Nadia Comaneci. They just can’t do it themselves, so Mark became my student. I showed him how silent movies worked. “Here’s the theme. Here’s the leitmotif. See what they’re doing here? Here’s the variation. You see how you hear part of the theme, but it’s an umbrella of the overall score.” We went through this whole process, then he did “A Place In Time.” With “Sidewalk Stories,” there was no question, there was no fantasy of me writing anything. It was going to always be Mark.
But money prevented that [initially], and we had another score written, which wasn’t terribly good, and when we sold the film to Island, the first thing I asked was, “Can we change the score to my original vision?” Which was Mark Marder doing it. It was a little bit of a battle there — this was Chris Blackwell at Island, and Island Pictures is from Island Records, and those guys know music. Chris wanted to interview Mark, so Mark and I did some rehearsal. [I told Mark], “You’ve got to use musical terms with [Chris]” and he said, “Well, I’ll tell them that the theme is going to polyrhythmic.” “Polyrhythmic! Polyrhythmic! That’s a good word. What does it mean, Mark?” And he told me, and I said, “Well, you got to use that word to Chris Blackwell when he calls you.” So when Chris called him, I got a call from Chris [after] saying, “Your guy is good. He’s in.”
I’m so proud of the score, I like it actually more than I like the movie. That’s not true, but emotionally, that’s how I feel. I love that that score first, I love my movie second, and I love them together. The score is just brilliant.
“A Place in Time” is on the Blu-ray too. Did you have the materials all this time or did it take some time to recover?
The head of Carlotta Films, our distributor, Vincent Paul Boncour, is a real cinema guy, so when when we talked about the DVD and the Blu-ray, I said to him, “You know, there’s a short we made that’s a predecessor to ‘Sidewalk Stories,’ and it’s ‘A Place In Time.’” He said, “Really? I never saw it,” and I said, “No, a lot of people haven’t in this day and age, because it was made in 1976.” So I had to track it down. A copy didn’t exist except that I did something a little cagey back in the day. In 1976, when I made the movie, I sold a copy to the Donnell Library and I sold a copy to Baruch College, and Donnell bought a second copy, so three copies of “A Place In Time” existed. This is before digital stuff, so there would actually be times that I would go to the library and [say], “Can I borrow ‘A Place In Time’? I made this film.”
In 2004, the Donnell Library remastered several of the films that they had, so “A Place In Time” became digital and when it came time to do a DVD, I told Vincent that the library has it, so my job was to get it from the library and have Vincent at Carlotta do their thing with the library and acquire the rights to put it on the DVD. So I go look up the Donnell Library’s telephone number, and it’s out of service. I didn’t know what that meant, but it turned out that the Donnell Library had closed and I was in a little bit of a panic. Where’s the movie? It turns out that Lincoln Center had acquired some of the elements that the Donnell Library had, so we tracked it down. “A Place In Time” was well and good. The elements existed, and Vincent and I made a date to go to Lincoln Center because he was in New York, and he loved it and said, “Definitely, this goes onto the DVD.”
You’ve been rumored to have some films in the works in the last few years. Has this recent revival of “Sidewalk Stories” been creatively rejuvenating?
I’m very close to doing a film called “The Yellow Tape,” which is a new concoction that I created two months ago. It’s a low-budget indie film, but it’s going to look great, because “Sidewalk Stories” was low budget — I remember when I got the job with Disney [on the followup “True Identity”], they loved “Sidewalk Stories” and they said, “What do you think the budget is on this? We can’t really tell, but it’s probably like $1.2 million, $2.3 million, somewhere in that ballpark. That’s what our guess is for ‘Sidewalk Stories.’” Then of course, I started to laugh because it was $200,000 and not a penny more to make that movie.
We don’t have the money yet, but we’re in the market, and like “Sidewalk Stories,” it’s a concoction of different genres. It’s a romantic comedy, a drama, a social commentary, a horror film and when I say horror, I mean people with axes and hatchets and such in their skulls. It’s not one thing. It’ll be like, “Whoa, I’m laughing. Whoa, what the fuck, it’s scary!”
I’ve noticed a couple other projects – “Resurrection Man” and Lady Be Good.” Has “Yellow Tape” taken precedence?
“Lady Be Good” was a project that I was really trying to get happening and had some interest, but it’s not happening now. “Resurrection Man” was something in the works and didn’t happen. I’ve always been creating stuff, but it just happened I didn’t have the financing. Now with “Sidewalk Stories” doing what it’s doing now, the creativity never left, but it’s now with a smile and more with the confidence that, yes, I’m going to get my “Yellow Tape” made.