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  • I knew Abel quite well throughout the '80s when I was a film critic and reporter, championing his work as well as the career of the tragic Zoe Tamerlis (you can find my reviews & interviews signed "lor." in Variety). I've lost touch with him in recent years but was pleasantly surprised by his CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS film.

    He takes the usual interviews plus archival material approach, so familiar from the work of the Burns brothers, and explodes the documentary format by injecting himself wholeheartedly into the film. You can hear Abel make caustic or just funny interjections from behind the camera, or occasionally wandering into the frame to easily dominate the proceedings, even playing the guitar and singing a ballad of his own at one point. This is considered gauche by documentary scholars, but I applaud Abel's no-holds-barred approach. The entire notion of "objective" "documentary" (or cinema verite for that matter) film-making as a distinct animal compared to "fiction" films is an absurd myth perpetuated by people who have not thought much about the subject. All documentaries, from Frederick Wiseman to Chris Marker to Werner Herzog to Michael Moore (among the most famous practitioners) are ultimately just the filmmaker's point-of-view, usually scripted, just like a narrative film, but after the fact. Just this morning I was checking out this year's Writers Guild of America Awards, and sure enough, they copped to this fact, giving out the best Documentary SCREENPLAY award this year to THE COVE.

    I live just 2-1/2 blocks from the Chelsea Hotel and am quite familiar with its history. In recent years it has been the subject of plenty of local controversy, with almost everybody expecting it to be ruined, a casualty of greed & progress a la the Plaza Hotel. Abel goes into this aspect of its story with plenty of material, taking us up to early 2008, on the project to kick out all the longterm tenants and go condo.

    It is the "ghosts" of the place that interest Abel the most, and the film is a lot of fun listening to all manner of crackpot stories, as well as featuring some typically over-the-top recreations of events, notably the Sid & Nancy routine. Archive footage shows us famous folk including Warhol, Arthur C. Clarke and William Burroughs, all like Dylan Thomas among the place's roster of great past residents. I didn't catch anything about Shirley Clarke, certainly the most wonderful filmmaker (Abel included) who ever stayed there, constituting a glaring oversight here.

    In terms of new footage, another legendary director Milos Forman steals the spotlight, reunited with old friends in a visit to the edifice, and giving us lots of first-hand revelations on how the place has changed since he stayed there some 40 years ago, back when he made his first American film, TAKING OFF. The other fount of wisdom is the hotel's former manager Stanley Bard, a colorful character in his own right. Ethan Hawke, who directed CHELSEA WALLS as a valentine to the building, offers his worthwhile anecdotal perspective, too.

    Sad personal postscript on CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS: Quite some time ago I headed over to Anthology Film Archives in the East Village to see Abel's film in its NYC premiere run, and was greeted by a sign on the door saying CANCELED, blaming the distributor. Then last fall it debuted instead at "The Closet" (my nickname for the local Chelsea 9-plex on the same block as the hotel) and I got to see it with just 4 other people in the audience. Abel did a good job on this film and as usual can't get arrested on his home turf.
  • jotix10022 October 2011
    Warning: Spoilers
    Our only claim to fame about the famous Chelsea Hotel was eating at El Quijote restaurant, located on the ground floor. Passing the famous red brick building on 23rd street, the place always had an allure for us with its lobby full of paintings from some of the artists that made it their home. A lot of famous people and celebrities lived in the legendary hotel throughout its long history.

    Abel Ferrara, the director, has fond memories of the Chelsea Hotel in his documentary. The hotel was an outpost of bohemian life for most of the people that came to spend part of their lives in the place. Even the ghosts that seem to dwell in certain apartments have long stories themselves.

    One of the most famous tenants were Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, who died stabbed to death in the bathroom of the unit they occupied. This vignette is illustrated with actors in the attempt to recreate what really went on that fatal day. There are different accounts about the crime, but sadly, her case was never solved, although Sid Vicious went to jail because he was the main suspect. Ironically the knife that killed Nancy was bought on 42nd street, supposedly by Sid.

    The most interesting vignette comes from a famous former resident, Milos Forman. He meets with Stanley Bard, the ex-owner of the Chelsea to reminisce about the fire in the hotel while Mr. Forman was living there. According to his story, Milos Forman, upon realizing there was a fire on the fifth floor, came out of his room with only a tee shirt on. A friendly woman gave him a skirt to cover his nakedness.

    The accounts of some of the famous residents, past and present are presented in a casual manner. Ethan Hawke talks about returning to live at the Chelsea when his marriage to Uma Thurman was crumbling. Robert Crumb, Dennis Hopper, Stanley Bard and others recount stories at the Chelsea with fondness.

    Sadly, the hotel was sold for a lot of money and it is not accepting any paying guests, pending perhaps relocation of those stragglers to be made into a monstrosity. The Chelsea Hotel's history will never be duplicated. Thanks to Abel Ferrara we are given a guided tour of the famous place.
  • Chelsea on the Rocks (2008)

    * 1/2 (out of 4)

    Abel Ferrara's documentary taking a look at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. The documentary doesn't really focus on the famous people who have lived there even though they are discussed. The main focus appears to be no focus at all as we just get random stories about suicide, death, love, fires, murders, drugs and countless other topics like this. I watch quite a few documentaries including those with subjects that I don't care about or that I'm not totally into. A good film will grab your attention and bring you in no matter what the subject is but CHELSEA ON THE ROCKS never once did that. I really can't remember the last time I saw such a bland and boring documentary but I'm guessing this might appeal to the types of people who lived in this place and know about some of the stories mentioned. Ferrara interviews various people who have lived at the hotel or are currently there. We get some famous people like Ethan Hawke and Milos Forman but the majority of the interviews are just with normal people. Quite often while they're telling their stories we can hear Ferrara in the background usually saying a mixture of cuss words. No matter if the story deals with ghosts, suicide or murder, the director's response is the same. "No sh*t" and "f&*k man" are two phrases that are repeated quite often. I'm really not sure what the director was going for here but it just never connected with me.