"Some of these people just float in here. They don't check in, they float in," an interview subject says in Abel Ferrara's first foray into documentary filmmaking in over three decades, a home movie (literally—Ferrara moved into his old haunt during production) masquerading as vital exploration of the infamous Chelsea Hotel. This is the place where notable lives were lost (Nancy Spungen in Room 100—no longer being rented; Dylan Thomas of alcohol poisoning) and songs spun (Leonard Cohen wrote about his sexual encounter with Janis Joplin on an unmade bed).
While Ferrara's heart is in the right place his mind is somewhere else. Ostensibly he came on board to direct after Chelsea Hotel resident Jen Gatien, daughter of nightclub impresario Peter Gatien (for whom I'll always hold a fond place in my heart, having spent the early '90s as a Limelight club kid), contacted Ferrara as a potential interview subject for a film about the landmark location. Time was of the essence, as longtime manager Stanley Bard had been forced out and the place was about to abandon its rugged and druggy authenticity for Chateau Marmont faux chic-ness. In stepped the rugged and druggy director to document the day!
Perhaps if I'd been a resident of the Chelsea or if I'd been on some strong Hunter S. Thompson-style psychotropic drugs I would have enjoyed Chelsea on the Rocks, but from my admittedly sober perspective the doc is as annoyingly ramshackle and rambling as its artsy denizens. As a short film Chelsea on the Rocks would have been delightful, but 90 minutes of Ferrara darting from room to room with a handheld camera trailing wildly behind, only to rest on unidentified (an admittedly sweet gesture since behind those Chelsea walls the famous and the anonymous all make up its essence equally), luridly reminiscing talking heads, becomes as grating as Grandpa documenting his return to the Catskills.
And where is Stanley Bard, the lone crusader whose father purchased the hotel in 1942 and whose own son David worked as an assistant manager for 20 years? "The tenants are like art pieces in a museum curated by him," Artie Nash, a hotel resident and curator is quoted as saying about Bard in an article included in the press kit (though, of course, I've no way of telling if Nash himself is actually interviewed since Ferrara chose not to name check anyone with titles). Bard doesn't show up until halfway through the film when he happens to walk into the lobby while Ferrara is interviewing Milos Forman, who lived rent-free at the Chelsea for two years during his starving artist days. "You'll pay me back when you have money," Forman recalled Bard telling him back then, slyly adding, "And I did!"
Much like a wily producer, Bard made an investment in artists—one that often paid off. The Chelsea Hotel survived for decades under Bard's unorthodox business model. The septuagenarian is the human face of the notorious establishment. Yet in Ferrara's skewed vision he's relegated to the sidelines in favor of passé anecdotes about the many gruesome deaths and drugged debauchery that went on inside those Chelsea walls. Instead of a coherent storyline we get Ferrara weaving like a drunk at closing time, one moment conducting totally off subject interviews about 9/11 (Ferrara fled NYC for Rome soon after and his fixation on the tragedy reads as survivor's guilt) before cutting to a guy discussing his feces sculpture. (Which only led me to wonder if Ferrara was self-medicating during post.)
When the prodigal son director isn't egging on his old homies for sensational stories we get extraneous and pointless re-enactments that even the actors seem painfully embarrassed to be participating in. Sid and Nancy's last night is a doozy, with Jamie Burke as Sid and Bijou Phillips as Nancy doing a campy B-movie rendition of what we've all seen before in Alex Cox's stunning biopic, Sid and Nancy. One can't help but feel sorry for them—and their director for stooping so low. While asking folks about the rumored ghosts who live at the Chelsea, Ferrara pathetically superimposes an "apparition" of Jamie Burke's Sid over an empty hallway. Ferrara even interviews a guy who, well, didn't actually know Sid—but was at a party with him when he passed out after drinking vodka and shooting up. And the moral of the story is?
Simply put, Chelsea on the Rocks is helmed by an auteur who is not only too close to his subjects, but also has no feel for interviewing. While it can be thrilling to follow along with a documentarian like Heddy Honigmann, who seems clueless as to where her films are going and endearingly embraces that uncertainty, Ferrara is like a man on a last gasp mission, tossing everything at the screen, desperate for ideas. Chelsea on the Rocks often resembles an experimental collage with its residents' paintings superimposed onto footage of its rooms, even onto the subjects themselves. (And yes, all this superimposed imagery is every bit as tedious as the '80s soap opera style reenactments.) One wonders why Ferrara didn't just can the staging and go all the way and make an experimental film—especially since the archival footage, like shots of the real Janis Joplin wasted out of her mind during a spontaneous jam session, only serve to emphasize that Ferrara's girlfriend Shanyn Leigh playing a drunken "Jan" is a waste of both film stock and the audience's time.
Most unfortunate, though, is the fact that buried underneath Ferrara's old-vaudevillian-comic-visiting-the-Borscht-Belt vibe, his kibitzing with the kitchen staff and playing guitar, is a truly important big picture that involves the gentrification of Manhattan itself in the wake of Giuliani. Stanley Bard's being forced out by the bottom-line-minded offspring of his longtime partners is very much linked to the growth and greed that has led to the current financial crisis we now find ourselves in. Perhaps the most eloquent subject to be interviewed is Ethan Hawke, who took refuge at the Chelsea after his marriage fell apart and directed his own movie about the place. He mentions to Ferrara that there isn't any memorabilia in the Chelsea—that Bard consciously wanted it to be a living organism. And yet Ferrara has chosen to conjure up the spirits of dead poets and rockers, instead of focusing on the history unfolding right before his lens.
Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.