While lacking in any real historical background on the New York City bohemian mecca, Amelie Van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier’s documentary bids a sober farewell to the era of the starving artist.
If you were ever the same kind of pretentious twerp as I was, you likely went through a phrase sometime in your teens or early 20s when you daydreamed about visiting New York City’s Hotel Chelsea, a bohemian Emerald City that housed everyone from Dylan Thomas to members of the Beat Generation to Andy Warhol to Joni Mitchell to Leonard Cohen. It wasn’t just that many of the most fascinating, iconic artists of the 20th century stayed at the Chelsea, but that they did some of their best work there, as if there was some sort of inspirational magic in the walls.
Though it was by license a hotel, and offered some rooms for short-term stays, the Chelsea at various times acted as a flophouse, an artist’s colony, and long-term apartments. Due largely to manager Stanley Bard’s reluctance to press his tenants for overdue rent, it rarely turned a profit, and, following Bard’s removal, the Chelsea was sold to a real estate developer in 2011, undergoing a decade-long renovation and reopening as a boutique-style hotel designed to attract tourists.
On the bright side, at least its historical landmark status prevented it from being torn down entirely and turned into luxury housing (or a high-end clothing store, like the former CBGB). Nevertheless, the Chelsea’s transition into just a standard, fashionably unremarkable hotel marks the true end of New York City as a place where you could live an artist’s life without wealthy parents or spouses to shore you up. Amelie Van Elmbt & Maya Duverdier’s Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel focuses on the final days of the renovation, as its last few long-term residents, “the remnants of another time in New York City,” face the imminent loss of their homes.
If you’re looking for a detailed history of the rise and fall of the Hotel Chelsea, or even anecdotes about some of its famous residents, you won’t find them here. Other than a brief clip of a young Patti Smith talking about what brought her to the Chelsea, the legendary artists, writers and musicians who spent time in its rooms are reserved to ghostly images projected on cracked and peeling walls, and snippets of voices echoing in the halls. The Chelsea’s most notorious residents, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon, aren’t mentioned at all. It’s the shadows of carefree decadence that remain, and not tragedy.
Living among the ghosts are a handful of eccentric, aging artists, spending much of their days still trying to make art, wandering around the building chatting up construction workers, and ignoring the fact that they’re about to be homeless. As New York City, along with every other major U.S. city, continues its insidious plan to shut the working class and poor out of the housing market, we should be used to hearing hard luck stories about people being squeezed out of the only homes they’ve ever known. And yet, there’s something deeply affecting about seeing 80 year-old former choreographer Merle Lister hunched over a walker, gracefully moving her arms about to the sound of music only she can hear, surrounded by scaffolding and construction debris. It feels like an affront to human decency that this elderly woman should be forced to pack up and find a new place to live, simply because the new owners of her building want to attract a “different” kind of resident.
In some ways Dreaming Walls feels unfinished. It simply ends, without any follow up as to where Merle and the other few remaining residents ended up going. We don’t really get much sense about how they feel about losing their homes (though it’s safe to assume the answer would be “not great”) or what being a part of the legacy of the Hotel Chelsea means to them. The movie is mostly a collection of slice of life moments without any sort of tangible thread other than where they take place.
It’s not even so much about the Chelsea as it is a story about a dying breed–in this case the artist’s class–still taking its last few gasps as a small act of rebellion. Its ambiguity ultimately works for it, because as unique a place as the Chelsea was, it’s just one of many wonderful things lost in the name of “progress.” Dreaming Walls is beautiful, it’s mournful, and mostly it makes you miss something you were never even a part of in the first place.
Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is now available on VOD.