If you think of Chelsea on the Rocks, the new movie by Abel Ferrara, as an “informative documentary,” then it probably seems like a total failure. Interviewees are never identified; when famous faces pop up, the reason for their “importance” is never explained. As far as the movie’s concerned, Ethan Hawke is just a divorced father, Dennis Hopper is just a Dylan Thomas fan, Milos Forman is just some guy who knows how to tell a good story. Any attempts Ferrara makes to explain the change in the famous building's management that's supposedly the reason for the movie are at best half-hearted. If you wanna learn about that, you're better off reading a magazine. Yes, it's a documentary, but not one about the Chelsea Hotel. The history here, the famous names and events, are just wallpaper. It doesn’t matter who sang, but that someone was singing; the fact of a death is more important than who did the dying. Chelsea on the Rocks is a human document—a sketchbook, as much of one as Tsai Ming-liang’s Face. Tsai’s film is a Moleskine with half the pages blank; Ferrara’s is a cheap spiral-bound Mead, pages ripped out, news clippings tucked in, certain passages written feverishly, others in a careful and clearly legible hand. An unorganized (or unorganizable) jumble of meetings, rooms, B-roll footage, runs up and down the stairs, ghost stories, half-improvised scenes from unmade films.
The movie’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes hokey, often funny. Sequences follow one another like diary entries—the harrowing and then, suddenly, the light-hearted. Minor details are lingered on while “major” ones are covered in a single shot. In grainy analog video, a Vietnam vet explains a ritual to absolve himself and his fellow soldiers of different types of guilt; in crisp HD, Milos Forman recounts a bit of black comedy, complete with a self-referential punchline; Ethan Hawke interrupts a story about his divorce to play the piano; Ferrara dicks around at the guitar shop across the street and admits his fear of heights on the hotel rooftop; a resident speculates on her paranoid elderly neighbor; Ferrara directs a fantasy about Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, with cameos by Adam Golberg and Giancarlo Esposito as their drug dealers.
Ferrara’s Chelsea Hotel is a place filled with grief, suicide, drug overdoses, crime and disease. A land of madness. But Chelsea on the Rocks is a happy film—I find it hard to think of a movie released this year that’s more optimistic. Yes, Ferrara will always be Ferrara: slouch-shouldered underdog, half-crazy, half-charming. He’s still got his peculiar sense of human doom and that eye that sees guilt everywhere. He’s still the guy who directed Dangerous Game—a movie that’s very certain that cinema doesn’t constitute the redemption of physical reality, but its total exploitation. We live in a bad world and do bad things. “And yet,” Chelsea on the Rocks seems to say. And yet, and yet, and yet. “And yet they all sleep well at night in rooms where people once died.”
The truth is that, for all of his guilt, or really because of it, Ferrara has a boundless ability to be amazed at happiness. People beat each other and betray each other and yet they go on. A man tells the story of how he had a brain hemorrhage and ended up lying on the floor of his apartment for three days before someone came to visit him. It's a horror story, but the man mostly remembers the funny parts, like how badly he wanted a bottle of Coca Cola, not understanding that it would have killed him. Ferrara can hardly contain his enthusiasm. Off camera, he raspily mumbles “Oh shit!” and “Jesus.” In setting out to make a film about compulsive suffering, he's made a film about how easily suffering is overcome.