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Chelsea Walls
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by Thom

"Dreamlike collage of La Vie Boheme a la Chelsea Hotel"
3 stars

Based on the play by Nicole Burdette, which was based on Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and directed by Ethan Hawke, Chelsea Walls takes you into an otherworldly time/space continuum where the living and the dead instruct each other in the terrible geography of the soul. Living in the Chelsea now is just grabbing for the past. The camera keeps you very close to the people, focusing in on details, rather than whole pictures. The feature is about the hotel more than any of the people, as the container for desperation and creativity.

The Chelsea is where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungen when he was only 20 years old.
Built especially for artists, it was the place to stay for writers and artists in New York City. Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, many of the Beat writers all stayed and made their mark there.

Thanks in part to Van Gogh, our notion of an struggling artist is that you are suffering, bedraggled, living off your dreams and worn thin by angst. While, in my experience, this is partly true, it is mostly fiction. Certainly, we like those characters more, but if you are actually an otherworld creator driven by your manias and obsessions, its better to pretend you are normal while all the well-adjusted people not thrown to the winds by their spirit and drive to create pretend to be a little off their nod because it’s a good, saleable, image.

Chelsea Walls at times is an overly romanticized picture of the Bohemian life but a desperately honest portrayal of the Chelsea now. It is the fantasy of what you want your life to be like when you leave your town and find yourself in New York living the boho artsy dream in the big city.

Uma Thurman plays a waify companion to the struggling film maker. A fey bohemian who is just holding on to herself while not giving up as much as the men in her life are asking.

Kris Kristofferson plays the grizzled, alcoholic writer whose books have to be pried from the floor by his agent. I work, live and play around working artists and writers so watching this version of a writer’s life felt like a cheap shot, and it is, like Uncle Sam or Grandma holding an apple pie. He’s an icon rather than a person. But sometimes, that’s enough. It’s certainly not out of place in this movie. Besides, its just not interesting to watch the normal process. This film plays tricks with your perception of time. It seems like everyone is living their lives in the present but there are elements to each story that makes you wonder when exactly any of these people were in the hotel.

It’s more like a ghost story, and I’ll mention this again later on.

Mark Webber, who played Scooby in Solondz’s Storytelling, has a good face for the irresponsible young drifter not sure what to do in life. He’s just hanging out with his friends and being on the road and in a crazy reference to Ken Kesey, his friend, played by Kevin Corrigan, screams about how “he’s going to get lost in Mexico, man.” Maybe in 1965, but today you can’t get lost at all. Perhaps parts of India, you can just disappear, but far off exotic places untouched by Europe and America, difficult to reach and little heard about are all gone or pre-packaged tourist destinations visited by millions to give you that “Algerian Interzone” or “Sub-Saharan African Safari” experience.

The world is inhospitable to adventurers. Now it seems the only way to get lost is to take a journey to inner space. Psychonauts are the new romantics, finding themselves sharing the Temporary Autonomous Zone with members of the lost tribe. You can’t go to that place in the world anymore, you just have to go there in yourself. It’s a near economic impossibility to go to New York to try to make it, especially as an artist. As someone told me once, New York is where you move when you know you’ve arrived.

Most of the action takes place in the hotel. At times the characters are more like ghosts, condemned to roam the halls. They get revisited by the same spirits, needing to play the same part again and again. They seem to be only connected to the hotel. That’s the backdrop that somehow makes them make sense. Prisoners of their dreams, of their desires, all represented by the hotel and what it was built for.

At times it is nerve wracking to watch until I started thinking of it as a ghost story. When you see a ghost, you only see the part of that person when some trauma was inflicted upon them. Out of thousands of hours a person lives, you can only put a few minutes on a screen. Without an arc to guide me, I am left looking at the bare facts. Chelsea Walls shows flashes of those fantasy lives and somehow tries to say “this is the Chelsea Hotel” and this is where I think good documentary can really bring the audience to a place that fiction can’t. Because its not the Hotel, it’s a movie called Chelsea Walls.

So I should look at this film as a piece of art and not a document, which I will let the director, Ethan Hawke, adresss at some point later on down the page.

The principal idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone is that it is what you make it. The characters in Chelsea Walls were trying to nourish themselves from the hotel, becoming in turn, blood for the vampires that would follow. Hawke himself grew up knowing about the Chelsea and was enamored of its story. “I was aware of the aesthetic of the Chelsea Hotel. I was a real lover, sycophant almost, of the whole bohemian lifestyle and you’d read about the punks and Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe fighting in the lobby. Bob Dylan writing there. Its in the water there. Whoa, I want to go drink the water there.”

Aaah, the life sustaining nourishment of creativity. I wrote a poem once about that bohemian experience about a a night in Harlem spent with some friends.

“So many brownstone ghosts and the floor thick with red wine spilled like blood from our fingertips while we clack clack clacked away on that old smith corona trying to raise the dead.”

Maybe I should have given it to Hawke with a little knowing wink. Just to say, “Yeah, I know.”

In Chelsea Walls simply being there didn’t seem to pull the music out of them as much as it was the great destroyer. A place you went to live with your shortcomings and failures while trying to spiral outwards into the world, spiral inwards into yourself.

The film was shot in Digital video and there were times when the projection was pixilated and distorted, like when you blow up a digital image and the larger it gets, the more it looks like clunky blocks rather then just a smooth sea of color. InDiGent, the production company that was formed to produce a certain number of films shot on DV, made the film. The big promise of DV is that it will satisfy the creator and “put the process back into the hands of the actor”, says Hawke, and that also its so much cheaper so imagine the profit$! Digital or Film is a huge debate right now and InDiGent is a test case.

There are upsides such as cost, but down sides, such as quality, when dealing with DV. Quality only suffers a little bit but when you notice the limitations of the medium, its disappointing. It makes me think that the picture hasn’t finished loading yet and brings up those feelings of frustration while on line and waiting … waiting … for a page to load. We want to see the clearest possible image because that is what our eyes are expecting from mechanical reproduction, a true to life image.

“We’re not going to apologize for DV, we wanted to find what was beautiful about DV”, Hawke said. “I felt like digital cinema is the wave of the future. You can make a movie for so little money. You have so little obligation to your financiers.”

“In DV you have to work extra hard to deliver it and make it evocative”. One of the ways Hawke tried to do this was to borrow from something he saw Alfonso Cuarón do and give each storyline its own color. So Thurman’s story is evocative of the 80’s and its all orange and red. Kristofferson is the sixties with no primary colors. Zahn’s story is supposed to be about the 90’s and it’s all blue. “It’s a totally cool thing to do and it works. Its not weird, you don’t really notice. It gives the image some kind of continuity.”, said Hawke.

I imagine going to live in the Chelsea is a big, scary, first step into the unknown. When you decide that your art has to happen and you need to find a place where it can come out. That’s the impression I got from this film. And it is a bit of a lifestyle fantasy but it does convey that feeling of being at a dead end where commerce comes and smacks you across the face, demanding you live in the real world and be “productive” rather than think your thoughts and bring your art, as a soul nourishing exercise, into the world.

It’s also, “experimental”, said Hawke. Like a tapestry where the hotel is the real protagonist. The film was scored by Wilco, who I always think is a punk band but my friends scoff at me and remind me they are like some kind of rock country blues thing and I’d probably like them. So much good stuff to discover, so little time. That’s why its important to have a cabinet and put your experts into it. Have your own little SuperFriends League.

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originally posted: 04/21/02 19:04:12
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User Comments

1/28/05 MyGreenBed A mess, though not always a bad thing. The dvd has Hawke's laughable attempt at commentary. 3 stars
12/17/02 cheri williams i loved the way they brought the underworld to the surface 5 stars
8/27/02 thejames Beautifull movie, not action packed but enjoyable. Must be in the mood for it. 5 stars
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  19-Apr-2002 (R)



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