Monday, September 28, 2009

Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks

I have only been in the Chelsea Hotel once, to buy an LP record (it was Benny Carter in Paris, won on ebay for the princely sum of $1.00). Of course, the Chelsea always had a certain reputation as the frequent site of much less innocuous transactions. For years, it was also the preeminent bohemian address, boasting a cultural who’s who as occupants, including Jack Kerouac, Dylan Thomas, Dennis Hopper, Arthur C. Clarke, and most notoriously Sid Vicious. 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 finally opens in New York this Friday, following the cancellation of its previously scheduled opening this past March.

The Chelsea started out as a conventional upscale hotel, which is how the new management would like it to operate 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. Often sounding completely out of it, 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, 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 Miloš Forman and a surprisingly funny Ethan Hawke. Unfortunately, his brief dramatic recreations of infamous episodes in Chelsea history, including the death of Vicious’s 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 and frankly the execution might at times be a little odd, 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. Appropriately, it opens this Friday (10/2) at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas.