Warm, Boozy Memories
“Chelsea on the Rocks,” Abel Ferrara’s first feature-length documentary, is a warm and curiously engaging film despite many flaws and the sloppiness of its construction. Although the documentary is ostensibly about a change of management that threatens to kill the storied atmosphere of the famously Bohemian Manhattan hotel, a haven for counterculture artists and writers over the last century and a half, it’s more a sort of lackadaisical travelogue through the halls and history of the place.
Shambling screwball Ferrara (director of the great “Bad Lieutenant”), a former resident himself, knows the place inside and out. He also knows Stanley Bard, the former manager of the place, who was recently forced out by the new management, and who appears in the film as an interview subject, a guide, and a figure of myth among the current and former tenants. Bard was manipulative but kindhearted, the kind of guy who’d let you have a room even if you had no credit or no money or no teeth, provided he liked your attitude. His banishment, for most of the interviewees, signals the beginning of the end for the Chelsea Hotel.
Most of the interviews are funny and comfortable, just banter sessions with random eccentrics on random afternoons. Ferrara himself wanders in and out of the shot, grunting and exclaiming, perpetually interjecting comments like, “Ohhhhh s**t,” and “Holy fuckin’ s**t” at appropriate moments, like when one tenant tells a story about collapsing on the floor of his apartment and lying there for three days, paralyzed. It feels like everybody’s kind of stoned. I heard complaints after the screening about Ferrara’s haphazard interview style, but I liked it. I wish he’d been onscreen more, actually.
No names are provided on the bottom of the screen during interviews, so except for Ethan Hawke and Dennis Hopper and the other recognizable faces, I have no idea who most of these people are. It was a mistake on Ferrara’s part to do that, I think. While the absence of identifying tags makes the film feel lived-in, like all these folks are just old friends meandering through mutual memories, it also makes it feel too insider-y, like this is a documentary made for exactly fifty people in the entire world.
A bigger mistake was Ferrara’s decision to dramatize infamous moments in the history of the hotel using actors. Bijou Philips, for example, plays Nancy Spungen – who in Ferrara’s version (based on the extremely dubious recollection of one interviewee) was stabbed not by Sid Vicious but by a drug dealer played by Giancarlo Esposito. The actors all look fake, glamorous, unblemished. The less said about these hokey reenactments, the better. Every time one started, I heard weary sighs in the screening room.
By far the film’s best section is a leisurely, charming interview with the director Milos Forman, who used to live in the Chelsea as well. Forman is charismatic, endearingly grumpy, and full of stories. As he and Stanley Bard wander the halls, he tells a great one about an old lady who died while he lived there. I could have watched these guys ramble for an hour.
“Chelsea on the Rocks” is an exercise in myth-making (as if the Chelsea Hotel needed any more of that), and in a way, its messiness is appropriate. The Hotel itself is an ungainly, screwy sort of place, and suffice to say that I’d rather see a documentary about it by Abel Ferrara than Ken Burns.