Chelsea on the Rocks (Aliquot Films, R)

film_chelsea_sm.gifThe venerable Hotel Chelsea encompasses the best and worst that New York City has to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The venerable Hotel Chelsea (built in 1883, when Chelsea was the center of New York’s theater district) encompasses the best and worst that New York City has to offer. On the one hand, half the leading lights of twentieth-century culture (from Tennessee Williams and Arthur C. Clarke to Virgil Thompson and Joni Mitchell) seem to have passed through its doors. Many contemporary artists also call it home, aided by the willingness of kind-hearted manager Stanley Bard to look the other way when it came to technicalities such as credit history or ability to pay the rent.

On the other hand, the Chelsea has been the site of notorious violence and drug use. According to one resident, "You could hook up with anything and everything" there, and the notables who have met their death within the Chelsea include Dylan Thomas (alcohol poisoning), Lost Weekend author Charles R. Jackson (suicide) and Nancy Spurgeon (stabbing). Worse, the genial days of Bard’s artist-friendly management are over: He was forced out in 2007, and the new management has been steadily evicting long-term residents and limiting stays to 21 days with the goal of turning the Chelsea into a boutique hotel. (You can read all about it at http://www.hotelshelseablog.com/.)

Abel Ferrara has previously explored the seamy underside of New York in feature films such as Bad Lieutenant and King of New York, so the Chelsea is a natural subject for his first major documentary (he directed the short Not Guilty: For Keith Richards in 1977). Ferrara’s approach is as erratic and unconventional as the bohemian lives led by many of the Chelsea’s residents, and combines interviews with famous and not-so-famous tenants, archival footage of departed residents such as Andy Warhol and William Burroughs, and several rather hokey reenacted scenes (a party with Janis Joplin, Nancy Spurgeon’s death not at the hands of Sid Vicious but two drug dealers). The film is obstinately discursive and sometimes amateurish, but succeeds in communicating Ferrara’s appreciation of the hotel and its odd mix of tenants while also creating a feel for what it must have been like to live in the Chelsea during its glory days.

The interviews are the best part of the film; everyone featured is both a character and a raconteur, and Ferrara seems to have a gift for setting people at ease so they tell some truly remarkable stories, which may or may not be literally true. (My favorite is Milos Forman’s tale of the woman drowned in her room by the New York Fire Department.) Ferrara doesn’t identify his interview subjects with chyrons, so unless they’re so famous you already know them by sight or their name comes up during the interview, you may never figure out who is speaking at any moment. This has the advantage of focusing attention on what they’re saying rather than who they are, which is probably Ferrara’s point.

A creative community is as fragile an ecosystem as any salt marsh and just as easily destroyed: Chelsea on the Rocks celebrates a hotel which nurtured some of the greatest talents of the twentieth century. If the Chelsea under its new ownership becomes just another boutique hotel, at least we have Ferrara’s film to remind us that it was once much more. | Sarah Boslaugh

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