‘Dreaming Walls’ review: Elegy for Chelsea Hotels Bohemian Mystique
There are many layers in the mystery of the Chelsea Hotel. Long before it became a hipster haunt, the 12-story, 250-room fortress, built in the 1880s, was the home of Mark Twain (although when I think about it, he may have been the original hipster). In the 50’s Chelsea hosted various literary figures, the first of whom gave it a loose aura was Dylan Thomas, who lived the lush life in room 205 when he became ill and died in 1953. The Beats moved in. (Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac), and so did Arthur Miller after divorcing Marilyn Monroe and Arthur C. Clarke while writing “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But it was Andy Warhol who marked the underground cache at Chelsea when he shot his three-and-a-half-hour multi-screen walk “The Chelsea Girls” there in 1966. When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe took up residence in 1969, they were already looking at themselves as the next generation in the Chelsea tradition of bohemian misery. The coolest musicians on the planet lived at Chelsea (Joplin, Dylan, Hendrix, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Dee Dee Ramone), and often did the coolest stuff, a trend that culminated and imploded in 1978, when Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen used the place. as her own personal heroin cave, and Nancy Spungen died there, probably as a result of a failed suicide pact.
Another team that is not so random. I had lived in New York for several years, and had passed Chelsea dozens of times, when one day I stared up across the street. And what I realized for the first time is that it is a dead beautiful piece of architecture. The red brick, the black metal balconies, the towers, the amazing width of it – it’s like a Victorian gothic castle plop down in the middle of W. 23rd St.
“Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel” is a documentary about the Chelsea Hotel that deals with almost none of these things. I mean, the legends are there, hanging around the margins of the film; you can say, as an observer does, that they are the ghosts that haunt it. But “Dreaming Walls” does not contain much of Chelsea’s legendary history. The film was shot over the last three years, during which the hotel underwent the final phase of a renovation that had been going on for almost a decade. The idea was that after years as the most famous and majestic flea bag in Manhattan, Chelsea would be transformed into a boutique hotel, one that would draw on the teams of legends. (At least they do not have to eliminate the hotel to achieve that, as fashion designer John Varvatos built his Bowery store on top of the CBGB tomb.)
In “Dreaming Walls”, the film’s co-directors, Amelié van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, never leave Chelsea. We see what a magnificent design the place had – the chandeliers, the eerie imperial corridors, the stairs with the ornate railing in black iron that form a do-not-look-down oval out of a horror film. If Roman Polanski from “The Tenant” had directed “The Shining”, Overlook Hotel would have looked exactly like that.
In the documentary, however, the gloomy splendor of it all is characterized by the refurbishment’s unaesthetic designations: hanging plastic sheets, visible pipes, half-finished walls. Anyone who has ever done a major home renovation knows that for a while you are living in a state of construction limbo, balanced between what your home was and what it will be. And “Dreaming Walls” uses the stately disorder in the Chelsea renovation as a metaphor for a key moment of cultural limbo. The past – the bohemian tradition of people living in Chelsea for very little money, making art and (often) drugs – is gone. The future, where everything that is paved, comes quickly. The film’s theme is the last sequels to the Chelsea mystery: the mostly ancient tenants who were still there waiting to be thrown out, living like withered totems of a world that once was.
They are not known, although one of them, Merle Lister, founded his own dance company in the 70’s, which performed in places like Lincoln Center. Now she is gray-haired and bent, with a melancholy pulse. She and some of the other residents of Chelsea have a living presence, even if (or maybe because) a sadness hangs over them. The death of bohemianism, even in a documentary that pays homage to it, is not a happy theme.
“Dreaming Walls” includes some footage from 50 years ago. We see Patti Smith, referred to as a “poet and musician”, along with clips by Stanley Bard, who started working there in 1957 as a plumbing assistant and took over as manager in 1964, and does more than anyone else to cultivate and maintain the hotel. existence as a sanctuary for artists and deadbeats and everyone in between. He was forced into a power struggle in 2007 – but the fact that the film is so vague about all this is not in his honor. “Dreaming Walls” has been thought of as a free-flowing, at times random bohemian daydream. What it shows us constantly raises questions (how many people were on average tenants at Chelsea? What was offered to them when the refurbishment began?) To which it is frustrating not to get answers.
The filmmakers could have made a portrait of the fading embers of Chelsea that included the larger story of the hotel’s inhabitants over the past half century. Still, it seems that the Chelsea Hotel inspires films that enjoy a certain creative stubbornness (although Abel Ferrara’s documentary “Chelsea on the Rocks” from 2008 contains more of what you want). “Dreaming Walls” aims not to capture the history of Chelsea, or even the experience of the people who have lived there, as much as the afterglow of Chelsea. The people it shows us can check out whenever they want (or get thrown out), but they can never leave.