Abel Ferrara has attempted, with mixed success, to capture a little bit of the legend and a little bit of the sordid actuality of the Hotel Chelsea in his new documentary feature, Chelsea on the Rocks.
The Hotel Chelsea is legendary, with its century and more of history as New York City’s shelter for artists, actors, musicians, writers, filmmakers, dancers, and other eccentrics who have trouble paying their bills on time. More than legendary — the Chelsea is mythic. So much so, it’s almost hard to believe the place is not some novelist’s invention, some kind of exemplary fable about living the artist’s life in America: residents arrive too late and leave too soon (or the other way around), they fail, or maybe succeed, and they drink too much, and have sex with all the wrong people, and get addicted to drugs, and romances start and fizzle out and hearts are broken, and death, murder, and suicide haunt the corridors; but every day, they work on their art, whatever it be, and though most are destined for obscurity, the list of famous residents is long and awe-inspiring.
So the Chelsea can never be just a building. But a building does exist: twelve stories and 250 rooms of actual brick and wood and wrought iron on West 23rd Street, in the Manhattan district it’s named for. And recent full-time resident Abel Ferrara — a filmmaker famous for his gritty thrillers, like King of New York and New Rose Hotel — has attempted to capture a little bit of the legend and a little bit of the sordid actuality of the hotel in his new documentary feature, Chelsea on the Rocks.
His success is mixed, but he picked a good moment to do it: the Chelsea is unlikely to continue as it has for much longer. Stanley Bard, the hotel’s manager of 45 years, recently turned over day-to-day decisions to a management company, and shortly found himself thrown out of his own office; the new management appears intent upon evicting as many long-term residents as possible and converting the Chelsea into a boutique operation that will bank upon the hotel’s storied past. “You’re getting it at the last possible moment,” one of Ferrara’s subjects says. “It’s like Düsseldorf after the bombing.”
Bard is an unusual person. Not an artist himself, he ran the place with the idea of sheltering artists, and he understood better than many all the emotional and financial pressures that go with the life. His terms were correspondingly elastic, to say the least. He was famous for taking paintings in lieu of rent, and he even allowed filmmaker Milos Forman to live there for two years without paying his. (He paid it all in one lump sum after the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Bard’s remark on this was simply: “good people you can trust!”) On the other hand, actor Ethan Hawke complained, not too strenuously, of being charged an exorbitant rate to live there.
But the place hasn’t been kind to all its residents. The vertiginous central stairwell serves Ferrara as a handy metaphor for the dangers of the place: “This building is sitting on a powerful vortex,” one resident says, and this vortex overpowers many of them. “Girls show up with their guitars,” another says, “and within a month they’re hookers.”
Or hooked. In one scene, R. Crumb, while inking a page, mentions Janis Joplin: “she was killed by fame.” Ferrara objects: “It doesn’t kill everybody.” Crumb: “No, but her, it killed.”
Which brings me to the most regrettable aspect of the film: the narrative re-enactments. A sentimental device at best, re-enactments undercut the power of every documentary I’ve seen use them, and this is no exception. Fortunately there are only two; the Sid & Nancy sequence is engrossing enough, but the Janis Joplin scenes are surpassingly lame, the worst of which features two half-hearted actors having a half-hearted ‘argument’ in half-hearted ‘Texas’ accents. Most unfortunately, Ferrara decided to juxtapose these scenes with archival footage of Joplin hanging out with some other musicians and ultimately breaking into full song; that footage was so moving, such a sudden and powerful reminder of how extraordinary Joplin was, of how much life she had when she died, of the tremendous generosity of her voice, that these scenes made me want to throw my coffee at the screen.
But the film shouldn’t be judged by these lapses. Overall it’s a strong picture, strongest when Ferrara is capturing the stories and anecdotes and opinions of his neighbors, or when former, often famous, residents are seen on archival footage. There’s footage of 9/11 from the roof, and the story of one resident’s brain aneurysm and near-death, and Milos Forman’s hilarious but ultimately sobering story of a fire in the building. In one remarkable sequence, a man reflects at length upon his experience in Vietnam and what it did to him, distinguishes between the different kinds of killing one does in war, and gives a harrowing description of a murder he committed there. This handful of stories are only those that have stayed with me after two weeks; there are dozens more.
In the end it is these people who tell something like the real story of the Chelsea Hotel: a composite of all the stories that have played out in those 250 rooms in Manhattan since 1905. The few dozen stories that Ferrara has captured can only gesture at the tens of thousands that must go untold, but it’s an admirable work despite its flaws, and for now this gesture will do.