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Chelsea on the Rocks
Time Out New York Project: Issue #731, October 1-7, 2009
Dir. Abel Ferrara. 2008. R. 88mins. Documentary.
Abel Ferrara is not a natural documentarian. He will interrupt his subjects with gruff asides or profane exclamations. His shot choices are haphazard and arhythmic, always cutting against any recognizable beat. Yet Ferrara’s unconventional methods only manage to serve Chelsea on the Rocks, his loving portrait of Manhattan’s boho landmark, the Chelsea Hotel.
This downtown edifice has housed all number of tenants, from Tennessee Williams to Patti Smith, from Ferrara himself to Thomas Wolfe. Each of these people is represented here in some way, if only fleetingly. The director even reserves some docudrama interludes—performed as if they were endlessly looping improvisatory slams—for former lodgers Janis Joplin and Sid Vicious.
Yet Ferrara’s bigger goal is to capture the vanishing essence of the Chelsea, especially in light of the forced departure of its venerable proprietor, Stanley Bard. The new owners have evicted a good number of longtime residents to attract a more upscale crowd, and the filmmaker doesn’t bemoan these developments. But he does recognize the ease with which our memories of specific cultural movements can fade, to be replaced only by ghostly whispers and memorializing plaques.
It makes sense that, within his own act of remembrance, Ferrara would include a hotel tenant’s home-movie footage of the September 11 attacks. The underlying message, in both cases, is the same: Never forget.—Keith Uhlich