Thursday, January 06, 2011

Ferrara at AFA: Chelsea on the Rocks

Last year saw the passing of the great Dennis Hopper, a true Hollywood icon and maverick. Not surprisingly, he was also once a resident of the (in)famous Chelsea Hotel, along with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious, and Arthur C. Clarke. Controversial director Abel Ferrara also lived at the Chelsea while filming Chelsea on the Rocks (trailer here), a documentary about the venerable Manhattan landmark, which screens during the Anthology Film Archives’ Abel Ferrara in the 21st Century retrospective of the director’s recent unreleased or under-distributed films.

The Chelsea started out as a conventional upscale hotel, which is how the new management intends to operate it now. However, during its heyday under Stanley Bard’s laissez-faire supervision, the Chelsea became a magnet for the artistically inclined, including both the celebrated and the anonymous alike. Bard was famously indulgent about collecting rent, and illegal activity, like drug dealing and prostitution, was reportedly widespread. As a result, it became a congenial home for Beatnik poets, hippie rock stars, and members of the Warhol Factory. For the soon-to-be former residents Ferrara interviews, these were indeed the “good old days.”

As an interviewer, Ferrara is absolutely awful in Rocks. Often sounding completely out of it (as usual), he has a habit of mishearing something a subject says and then fixating on it, taking the discussion in a random direction his interlocutor never intended. However, in his defense, the Chelsea denizens seem comfortable opening up to the filmmaker as a both fellow resident and eccentric, relating to him some fittingly strange anecdotes.

Almost in spite of himself, Ferrara effectively captures a sense of what the Chelsea was like during the height of its notoriety. He elicits some very amusing commentary from many well known former residents, including MiloŇ° Forman and a surprisingly funny Ethan Hawke. Unfortunately, his brief dramatic recreations of infamous episodes in Chelsea history, including the death of Vicious’ girlfriend Nancy Spungen, are ill-conceived (often approaching outright cheese), despite the participation of talented actors like Giancarlo Esposito.

Ultimately, Rocks is strongest when Ferrara simply revels in the Chelsea’s bohemian spirit. It might be raggedly uneven, but for a documentary about an institution as unconventional as the Chelsea Hotel, directed by an idiosyncratic filmmaker like Ferrara, Rocks is surprisingly cohesive and entertaining. A likable exercise in hipster nostalgia, it screens January 10th, 14th, and 18th at the Anthology.