Saturday, October 10, 2009
A very pleasant surprise. Abel Ferrara's documentary on the Hotel Chelsea is an inside job, as the director is a former resident, and clearly upset with the hotel's slow transformation from an artists' asylum to a more conventional for-profit business. His interviewees, ranging from famous figures to bohemian characters, add up to a pleasing picture of a New York subculture that is thinned by time but still going about its business and hanging on to its 400 square feet. What's wonderful about the film is how unerring are Ferrara's instincts for how he should insert himself into this tapestry. No invisible interviewer, he irrupts into conversations from the other side of the camera with opinions and obscenities, probably much as he would under any circumstances. Eventually he shows up in the frame, playing a song in Dan's Guitars or delightedly showing a crew member the secret passageway from El Quijote to the Chelsea lobby. Yet there is no sense of Ferrara stealing the show: he is more than generous to the parade of aging hipsters on display, and has a witty way of balancing his sense of showmanship with his pleasure in revealing the filmmaking mechanism. Though former Chelsea proprietor Stanley Bard is the hero of the film, Ferrara does not cut away from the residents' occasional negative reminiscences of him; nor does he excise his own weird outburst at one point. Beneath Ferrara's persona of filmmaker-as-curmudgeon is a powerful and by no means simplistic attitude toward how to be a filter and how to be a mirror. Chelsea on the Rocks is currently at the Cinema Village, with shows daily at 5:20 pm and 9:55 pm.