These Walls Can Talk: Chelsea Hotel Doc Tells a Tale Worthy of its Topic

Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival and the filmmakers.

TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION REVIEW BY TRAV S.D. | Something less than two years after our look at ghostly guests of the Chelsea Hotel for this website, we are delighted to have the opportunity to spend a little time inside the old building by way of a new documentary—and it proves to be spookier than we ever dreamt!

Directed by Belgian filmmakers Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier and executive produced by no less than Martin Scorsese, Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is a snapshot of the 138-year-old hostelry as it was in its recent state of transition. For those who haven’t followed the story, or didn’t notice due to its slow-motion progress, the Chelsea Hotel has been undergoing a top-to-bottom, major renovation for well over decade or so. Most of the residents received financial settlements to vacate the premises, but over 50 stubborn souls elected to fight and remain on the premises. The 12-story complex contains over 250 rental units. The tiny handful of folks who are sticking it out, unavoidably seem a forlorn and abandoned bunch.

Given the romance of the establishment, who could blame them for their tenacity? Dreaming Walls presents the building’s famous Bohemian denizens of ages past in a variety of techniques, from fluid and ghostly projections, to archival interviews of the artists themselves, to whispered accounts of their legends by those who still live there. The shabby but chic halls of the Hotel Chelsea have formerly hosted the likes of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Salvador Dali, Larry Rivers, Frieda Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgewick, William S. Burroughs, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Nico, Patti Smith, Stefan Brecht, Sid and Nancy, etc. etc. etc., the film reminds us. Virgil Thompson was 92 years old when he died; Alpheas Cole was a record-setting 112! So many famous folks have lived there. Who would ever want to leave?

Dreaming Walls presents us with a picture of the holdouts, a motley collection of mostly elderly people who continue to haunt the Chelsea in spite of the whirring table saws, pounding hammers, and the disconcerting site of construction elevators constantly passing their windows.

Photo courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival and the filmmakers.

“You’ll never leave,” one tells another, inadvertently conjuring the lyrics to the Eagles’ Hotel California. The filmmakers do all in their power to reinforce that image. Slow tracking shots through these lonely, abandoned corridors and elegantly appointed antique apartments remind us of everything from the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The predicament of these forgotten tenants is like a play by Sartre or Beckett. They have always been here, but the world is changing around them. A snaggle-toothed old choreographer poses while a younger artist makes a wire sculpture of her. Neighbors share wine and a meal, one speculating that the spirits of the place, its energy field, was somehow slowing the progress of the construction. The other, in a belligerent European accent, tells her she’s crazy. Both women somehow typify the clientele of the Chelsea. Two of the folks featured in the film have died since it was made.

In case you haven’t guessed, the changes at the Chelsea have to do with gentrification. This renovation project is occurring so that rates can be raised on what can be now marketed as new luxury units. Folks from outside of New York must forever be perplexed at why the people who live here find such developments doleful. I, for one, found the old layout beautiful as it was, and am not intrinsically thrilled by the prospect of a glittering, bright, clean Chelsea hotel.

I’m not sure the last time “new” and “clean” were widely considered virtues by New Yorkers. The 1920s? The 1840s? This city was founded in 1624. This is not Houston or Las Vegas.

Still, New York is also the capitol of capitalism. And so even this Temple of Art must yield before the cleansing, merciless floodtide of commerce. The movie is such a powerful metaphor for our times that it feels fictional. While technically a documentary, it is so impressionistic and elusive there may be some danger that folks who don’t know the Chelsea’s backstory may walk away befuddled. But locals with an emotional investment in the place will without a doubt be moved by this loving portrait of some truly characteristic New Yorkers. They’re becoming a rare breed.

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is directed by Amélie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. Runtime: 80 minutes. Screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival are on Fri., June 17, 5:30pm at Chelsea’s SVA Theatre (333 W. 23rd St. btw. 8th & 9th Aves.) ; Sat., June 18, 2:30pm at Cinépolis Chelsea (230 W. 2rd3 St. btw. 7th & 8th Aves.); and Sun., June 19, 5:30pm at Tribeca Film Center (375 Greenwich St.). For tickets and info, click here. This film will also be available via VOD (Video on Demand) as of Fri., July 8, when it will also begin screenings at select theaters (locally, at Manhattan’s IFC Center).


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