Tribeca Film Review: Dreaming Walls: A Resident’s Perspective on Life in Bohemian Downtown New York – Screens
Is there a more famous, infamous, blessed and occulted residence than New York’s Chelsea Hotel?
It became synonymous with a certain flavor and an era of rock and roll excess, along with the Velvet Underground, Janice Joplin and Sid Vicious. But the Chelsea was always intended as a place for art in all its forms, opening in 1884 as a cooperative aimed at giving New York’s burgeoning and increasingly wealthy writers, actors and painters a community in which blossom. After all, the late 19th century was when artists became legitimate, a true part of cultured society and not just the poor friend/pet of the wealthy.
No part of this story is explicitly mentioned in dream walls, the new documentary by Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt which slips between the walls of Chelsea like its many legendary ghosts. Or rather, where the walls should be. They arrive amid seemingly endless renovations that closed the hotel to anyone but long-term residents in the 2010s. of a moment in the hotel’s history.
Duverdier and van Elmb project images of the most famous tenants, those who spent days, weeks, months, even years, onto the walls and bricks, but that’s not the story here. Instead, they drift from apartment to apartment, finding the voices of those who have lived there most of their adult lives. It’s people like Merle Lister-Levine, the choreographer and performer who moved in during the New Wave decadence of the 1980s and now rolls through the halls on her walker, chatting with construction crews who’ve been there longer. than Sid Vicious. It’s about Zoe and Nicholas Pappas, the couple exasperated by the construction elevator that’s swept past their windows for nearly a decade, and equally angry at the neighbors whose lawsuits and complaints have delayed the inevitable . This is Skye Ferdinand, one of the few working artists whose wire-wrapped portraits are both durable and fragile. It’s in a particularly sensitive and poignant treatment of the oldest resident, the reclusive polymath Bettina Grossman.
Everyone has different views on what Chelsea is, was, should be, will be: and that is inevitable, natural and perfect. It’s a building, not a cult, and of course there will be friction rubbing against the narrow walls. What made the hotel special, Duverdier and van Elmb imply, is also what regularly curses it: Director Stanley Bard may have protected its position as an artistic haven by accepting art as rent – which is cool from afar, but then turned a blind eye to junkies and customers. Just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you want to step over paramedics dealing with an OD in the lobby just to get your mail.
There’s no right or wrong here, no clear villains or heroes, just people who love Chelsea in different ways from a deeply personal perspective. It has always been a place where art has been encouraged and artists will always be drawn to it – even after the renovation, when purists will say its soul has been sullied. But what soul? Ornate Victorian Gothic stained glass and wrought iron designs by architect Philip Hubert? There are enough archival talking heads saying all those beatniks messed it up. Is it the rock’n’roll circus years? Who died in a bathroom with rubber tubing around his arm, and good riddance, some tenants say. Or is it something more ethereal, the ghost of a muse who will always ward off lost souls and inspire an old woman to dance again.
Is this renovation the end of Chelsea? Maybe. But like dream walls suggests and sole guest Mark Twain would agree, earlier reports of his death were exaggerations.