Oct 2, 2009

On Chelsea on the Rocks

By Evan Louison

There are a great number of stepping stones through the rapids of taste and cinematic trend that must be surpassed in order for a filmmaker to transcend his own legend, his verifiable brand. These stepping stones are evident in the aesthetic path to captivating an audience as well, to convincing more sophisticated, cinema literate audiences to reach beyond their accumulated assumptions about a filmmaker, the stories that filmmaker chooses to tell, and their own assumptions about themselves as people, which of course informs the way they watch movies. These are the challenges that each Abel Ferrara film now represents.

One of the last true unreformed gonzo geniuses from the now distant and distorted downtown era has painted something of a seamless yet confusing portrait of the Hotel Chelsea, one from which we can take and learn yet remain confused by. Baffled really. Depicting a vaguely defined cultural institution in Chelsea on the Rocks, the infamous and much maligned Chelsea Hotel, Mr. Ferrara's excesses and his singular vision are right their for us all to see. Subject to much debate and legend, the place itself has been through the ringer over the last few years as Stanley Bard, its longtime manager, part owner and symbol of its lifeblood, is now in a sideline position. Stanley watches with dismay for much of the story as his beloved Hotel, a home for creative and eccentric types from all walks of life, begins to shift and disintegrate in the hands of a new, profit driven management. It is no longer the mecca, a shelter for both the counterculture and the merely fronting, that it once supposedly was.

Nostalgia for its past and uncertainty for its future are illustrated, with much reminiscing from such luminaries as R. Crumb, Rockets Redglare, Milos Forman & Dennis Hopper (who mercifully seems to not hold his experience on the set of The Blackout against the director any). Notable, more reent Chelsea Hotel figures like Lola Schnabel and Ethan Hawke (who made a regrettable narrative feature in its hallowed halls) also turn up. Quentin Crisp shows up for a second if you can spot him, and the memorable footage of William S. Burroughs personally defacing one of his books for a giddy and childlike Warhol also makes an appearance. The picture itself is bound to appear dizzying more than likely to most viewers. Yet thankfully Ferrera avoids many of the cliches of the contemporary reverential documentary, with their easily digestible, Phillip Glassesque codas.

The film traffics in three modes; beautiful, richly hazy archival footage of the Hotel’s hayday, contemporaneous interviews with B roll footage of the Hotel, and chaotic, often unfortunate, sometimes just barely audible recreations of notorious moments in its past that have become part and parcel to its legendary status. These moments include a bizare glimpse of a drugged out Janis Joplin in a bathroom arguing with an unnamed man and the infamous night that the most well-known hanger-on in the history of rock stars, Nancy Spungen, died of a stab wound that was attributed to her boyfriend/benefactor, Sid Vicious. Jamie Burke as Vicious isn’t nearly as bad as some have said. In fact, in terms of quality (or more accurately, a lack of quality) he doesn’t hold a candle to Bijou Phillips, who when not demonstrating how nice her singing voice is, should probably not speak; this suggestion stands also for the incredibly miscast Adam Goldberg as a venomous drug dealer and Giancarlo Esposito, who barely gets to speak here, as his lackey. Esposito , an incredible actor, somehow still steals the scene as the only compelling face of the bunch (Burke’s model perfect mug is unseen as Sid was, in Abel’s theory, unconscious at the time of the assault).

Regardless, these often silly recreations create an easy path through which to attack the film, if also a less than fair one. There is a fascinating, almost magical moment that occurs at the phi point, about two thirds of the way through this often difficult documentary, that has incredible power. It is also one which caught me off guard, startled me completely, and for a reason I did not realize until much later, completely threw me. There are many moments in cinema like this one, ones where we lose ourselves within them, and our ideas dissolve and drip away. They don’t always come out of nowhere in the way that they do here however.

A Vietnam veteran speaks directly to the camera, telling all manner of memories from battle, ones that might stand to chill even the most hardened listener, and certainly to pull even the most disinterested to the edge of their seats, desperately straining to hear and understand a truly mysterious inclusion in this much larger, and densely packed series of ruminations on the iconic 23rd Street Inn. It is his tone, his caged eyes and his words that demands attention, not just for the gravity of his narrative, one which Abel would recall to me during the course of an evening last fall, which we documented in the run-up to his 2006 film Mary’s US release, but for its place in the larger structure of this quickly disappearing cultural institution. This was a place that would house movie stars and Statesmen, but also people like this. He is a beam in the rafters, set in place long after the stones are laid upon the foundation. He'll be long forgotten once the furniture is moved in and out again.