Charles Lane was in the dark, figuratively and literally, waiting for a theater audience on the French Riviera to tell him whether his black-and-white silent film about urban homelessness in the United States transcended international tastes and boundaries.
For 97 minutes, he had doubts. From his balcony seat, he could see people walking out during the first half-hour; there seemed to be dozens of them. The scattered chuckles from those who remained were far from the blasts of belly laughs he had hoped to hear. And at moments where he had expected rapt silence, there were often chuckles.
"It was agony sitting there trying to figure out what they thought," Lane said of his experience at the world premiere of "Sidewalk Stories" at this year's Cannes Film Festival. "There was just enough reaction during the film for me to decide, 'Well, they don't hate it.' "
Hardly. The audience members were wild about the film, and when the lights came on, they expressed themselves the way eager festival audiences do--by leaping to their feet, turning toward the film maker and drenching him with cheers and applause. It went on for 15 minutes in the theater, then about 150 of the more appreciative waited around outside to meet him.
"I was floored by that reaction, I didn't expect anything like that at all," Lane said. "It's a moment to savor."
"Sidewalk Stories," a Chaplinesque romantic comedy about an impoverished street artist (Lane), an orphaned toddler (Lane's 2-year-old daughter, Nicole Alysia) and the toy store owner (Sandye Wilson) who completes the triangle, has inspired many audiences since Cannes and boosted a career that had been stalled for more than a decade. Island Pictures not only picked up "Sidewalk Stories" for American distribution but signed Lane to a three-picture contract.
The film has been welcomed at home with rave reviews in New York and Los Angeles (it just finished a two-week run in Los Angeles and opens Friday in Orange County and San Diego) and has caused some people to rethink the obsolescence of silent movies.
All this from the inspiration provided Lane by a homeless person he encountered on a New York subway 12 months ago. Lane said he was coming home from the Sugar Ray Leonard/Don LaLonde boxing match at Madison Square Garden when the man approached him and asked him who won the fight.
"I thought he was going to ask for money. Instead, we got into this conversation about boxing," Lane said. "He was a big fan and so am I, and as we talked, I realized how little we know about these people, how little we listen to them."
With $200,000 put up by his longtime friend and lawyer, Howard Brickner, Lane immediately began writing the script for "Sidewalk Stories." The film was shot over 15 frozen Manhattan days in February, shown in rough cut to Cannes organizers in early March and delivered the day before its scheduled screening at the festival in mid-May.
"Everything we did with the film was a risk," Lane said. "It was risky to do it as a silent film, it was risky to commit to the festival. I figured it would be phenomenally interesting or it would be a bomb."
Lane said he did "Sidewalk Stories" as a silent film because he had done one once before, and because the film's silence would support his theme.
"I felt artistically justified in doing it silent because we don't hear these people anyway," he said.
Some critics have faulted Lane for turning on the sound for one scene in which we hear the random voices of homeless people in a street-corner park. He said he did it to make comfortable audiences aware of the uncomfortable sounds--a "din of pleas," he calls it--that they tune out in the real world.
"Having sound in that scene was really what I was getting at all along," Lane said. "There are all these different languages, all these different interests. We should hear them."
Lane said his appreciation for the mime of such silent screen stars as Chaplin and Keaton did not come easily to him.
"I had a snobbish attitude about many aspects of silent films. I did not respect (silent) comedy as a sophisticated art form. I had no regard for black-and-white whatsoever. I was into hardware technology and felt this stuff was all very primitive. . . . Then (as a film student) I decided to challenge myself by doing a film that combined all these things I hated and see if I could do it well."
As a student at State University of New York at Purchase, Lane adapted the tragic Kitty Genovese case--the notorious 1964 incident where witnesses stood by doing nothing while a young woman was stabbed to death. The 36-minute short, "A Place in Time," won Lane a student Academy Award in 1976.
Lane worked as a film editor and screenwriter for the next dozen years while trying unsuccessfully to get financing for "Skins," a partly autobiographical interracial love story. With the success of "Sidewalk Stories," he has finally gotten the go-ahead on "Skins," but it won't be a silent film and it won't be in black-and-white.
"I don't want to just do black-and-white silent films," Lane said. "You get pigeonholed real quickly in this business."