Artfully toggling between the ephemeral memories associated with the infamous Chelsea Hotel, and the more granular concerns of its present residents, Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt’s new documentary, the Martin Scorsese executive produced “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel,” is a concise reflection of the erasure of historical monuments in the name of gentrification. Centralizing the protracted construction process that closed down the hotel in 2011, but allowed its long-term residents to stay, the doc mainly follows the hold-outs in their ninth year of construction, many who view the hotel as one the last examples of bohemian, and affordable, living in Manhattan.
While populated by various artists and eccentrics, Merle Lister — an elderly dancer, choreographer, and artist — serves as the film’s guide, moving through the construction zone with her walker, discussing the historical moments with various construction workers, and fellow artists. Unlike other residents, who bemoan the near-constant construction that is quite literally changing the building — one tenant hyperbolically calls the entire process a “slow motion rape”— Lister continually looks forward, even speaking about new dance pieces she’s working on, all while walls and floors are being reconfigured around her.
Interspersed with these present-day reflections is archival footage that introduces the hotel’s former manager, Stanley Bard, who oversaw the hotel from the ‘70s up until 2007. While manager, Bard fostered an artists’ collective, allowing various creators to stay at the hotel and, often, taking artwork as payment for rent. This artwork was placed on the hotel’s walls, and acted as a “stand alone example of bohemianism,” as one tenant describes it, before the reduction of the hotel’s famous walls to barren sheetrock by the new owners, reflecting the fight that the current tenants were, and continue to have, with new management. Does the Chelsea still retain its history if all aspects of its previous lives are erased in the process?
While much of the film moves into the various confined apartments, introducing the eclectic group of tenants who have held out in the face of corporate pressure, Duverdier and Elmbt literalize their title as various points, projecting various figures who’ve stayed at the hotel onto its now barren walls — Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, etc. This aesthetic choice showcases the history that is embedded within the walls that are now being torn down, with even a construction worker admitting that it feels like the ghosts of past residents are speaking to him. But, the film also isn’t so interested in uncritical nostalgia, with many residents speaking about how the hotel became a haven for drugs and prostitution towards the end of Bard’s tenure, and they are hopeful that when the hotel is finished, it might return to its hayday.
The hotel’s history is perhaps too overwhelming to cover within the scope of a single film, but “Dreaming Walls” is more invested in capturing a mood than providing a chronological overview of the Chelsea. We are only given snippets into the tenants’ lives, and rarely are we given the full accounts of the famous people who’ve passed through the hotel. Instead, these fragmentary memories act as an invitation to look into the Chelsea outside of the scope of the film, to realize that, say, Arthur Miller frequented the hotel in the aftermath of his divorce from Monroe, or that Arthur C. Clarke wrote “2001: A Space Odyssey” while staying there. There’s simply too many stories to contain about the Chelsea, but “Dreaming Walls” does well to show how the ghosts of the residents past can, hopefully, inform the hotel’s future. [A-]