In simple terms, the Chelsea Hotel, on 23 rd St. in New York, is one of the most important places in the history of American art. Sometimes it seems that almost every known poet, painter and musician in American history spent time there, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsburg to Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. The story of the Chelsea is the story of a building actually intended to be an inspiration to human creativity. And now, an extensive renovation has driven away most of the long-time, usually elderly, residents to make room for a ritzy hotel with rooms that can cost over $3000 for one night.
A French architect, Phillip Hubert, driven by ideas of building a community of artists, designed the Chelsea in the 1880s with extra wide hallways to encourage social interaction, and walls three feet thick to ensure privacy. It worked for decades. Major works of art have come out of the Chelsea. Arthur C. Clark wrote his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Chelsea. Bob Dylan composed dozens of songs there.
There’s no way an 80-minute movie can get to the stunning history of the Chelsea, so two young Belgian filmmakers, Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt took the poetic route to give the feeling of the Chelsea rather than an historical account. Interviews with the few remaining residents from pre-renovation days mingle with archival film images from the past – old interviews, home movies, photographs, clips from Andy Warhol’s infamous film Chelsea Girls. And there are scenes of aged residents sidestepping construction in the hallways and interacting with workers.
Retired dancer and choreographer Merle Lister has lived at the Chelsea since 1981.
The film rarely identifies either residents of the past few years, or people in the archival footage. So the film really is like a dreamy boat ride through a scrapbook. You might recognize some things and people, but not others. You come away feeling that the line between past and present is thin, that what has happened at the Chelsea never really goes away.
What has happened at the Chelsea is enshrined in the art created in this fascinating place. It’s been called the longest-lasting artists’ colony ever. And the spirit of the Chelsea continues when people listen to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album, or look at a Jackson Pollock painting.
An immense amount of American culture of the 20 th century was either created at the Chelsea or inspired by the Chelsea. Lizzie Bliss and Abby Rockefeller were two young wealthy women who were so taken by what they learned from artists at the Chelsea, that they helped create New York’s Museum of Modern Art – which, of course, is a huge treasure chest of art.
The beauty of Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel is that it gets to the heart of things without turning itself into an encyclopedia. It’s an elegant portrait of the Chelsea in unique ways. The funky people interviewed don’t suggest typical elegance, but you can feel it in their persistence and in their memories. It’s a stubborn elegance embodied in their grit, in their insistence on staying and being.
The filmmakers report that construction workers draw on the walls and a few of them Google the names of artists who’ve lived at the Chelsea. Perhaps the greatest tribute to what the Chelsea did for art is the film itself and the two young Belgian women who made it. Some extraordinary avant-guardish filmmakers lived and worked at the Chelsea – Harry Smith, Shirley Clark, Jonas Mekas. Their imagination lives on in the work of Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt.