Chelsea on the Rocks celebrates the personalities and artistic voices that have emerged from the legendary residence, the Chelsea Hotel, in the heart of New York. Once considered an ... See full summary »
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Chelsea on the Rocks celebrates the personalities and artistic voices that have emerged from the legendary residence, the Chelsea Hotel, in the heart of New York. Once considered an untouchable, impenetrable tower for writers, artists, musicians and mavericks, it has recently been claimed as a boutique hotel venture for a management company that shows blatant disregard for its formidable history. Written by
I knew Abel quite well throughout the '80s when I was a film critic and reporter, championing his work as well as the career of the tragic Zoe Tamerlis (you can find my reviews & interviews signed "lor." in Variety). I've lost touch with him in recent years but was pleasantly surprised by his CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS film.
He takes the usual interviews plus archival material approach, so familiar from the work of the Burns brothers, and explodes the documentary format by injecting himself wholeheartedly into the film. You can hear Abel make caustic or just funny interjections from behind the camera, or occasionally wandering into the frame to easily dominate the proceedings, even playing the guitar and singing a ballad of his own at one point. This is considered gauche by documentary scholars, but I applaud Abel's no-holds-barred approach. The entire notion of "objective" "documentary" (or cinema verite for that matter) film-making as a distinct animal compared to "fiction" films is an absurd myth perpetuated by people who have not thought much about the subject. All documentaries, from Frederick Wiseman to Chris Marker to Werner Herzog to Michael Moore (among the most famous practitioners) are ultimately just the filmmaker's point-of-view, usually scripted, just like a narrative film, but after the fact. Just this morning I was checking out this year's Writers Guild of America Awards, and sure enough, they copped to this fact, giving out the best Documentary SCREENPLAY award this year to THE COVE.
I live just 2-1/2 blocks from the Chelsea Hotel and am quite familiar with its history. In recent years it has been the subject of plenty of local controversy, with almost everybody expecting it to be ruined, a casualty of greed & progress a la the Plaza Hotel. Abel goes into this aspect of its story with plenty of material, taking us up to early 2008, on the project to kick out all the longterm tenants and go condo.
It is the "ghosts" of the place that interest Abel the most, and the film is a lot of fun listening to all manner of crackpot stories, as well as featuring some typically over-the-top recreations of events, notably the Sid & Nancy routine. Archive footage shows us famous folk including Warhol, Arthur C. Clarke and William Burroughs, all like Dylan Thomas among the place's roster of great past residents. I didn't catch anything about Shirley Clarke, certainly the most wonderful filmmaker (Abel included) who ever stayed there, constituting a glaring oversight here.
In terms of new footage, another legendary director Milos Forman steals the spotlight, reunited with old friends in a visit to the edifice, and giving us lots of first-hand revelations on how the place has changed since he stayed there some 40 years ago, back when he made his first American film, TAKING OFF. The other fount of wisdom is the hotel's former manager Stanley Bard, a colorful character in his own right. Ethan Hawke, who directed CHELSEA WALLS as a valentine to the building, offers his worthwhile anecdotal perspective, too.
Sad personal postscript on CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS: Quite some time ago I headed over to Anthology Film Archives in the East Village to see Abel's film in its NYC premiere run, and was greeted by a sign on the door saying CANCELED, blaming the distributor. Then last fall it debuted instead at "The Closet" (my nickname for the local Chelsea 9-plex on the same block as the hotel) and I got to see it with just 4 other people in the audience. Abel did a good job on this film and as usual can't get arrested on his home turf.
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