Sitges Film Festival 2008: Ferrara on the Rocks
[Above: William Burroughs and Andy Warhol in Chelsea on the Rocks]
Within the “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” mythology of New York City, the Chelsea Hotel has always held a unique spot as a haven for misfits, bohemians and vagabond geniuses. Even as the rest of Manhattan gentrified and Disneyfied, the 12-story building at 222 East 23rd Street—a hotel since 1905—held its ground, its rooms occupied by everyone from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan, Sid Vicious to Julian Schnabel, Arthur Miller to Courtney Love. It’s a cultural landmark of the feverish demimonde that has made the city what it is. Or was. Not so long ago, Stanley Bard, who had managed the hotel for 45 years, was ousted, in favor of corporate interests that may succeed in turning the hotel into a boutique enterprise.
Enter Abel Ferrara. The Chelsea makes a natural subject for the filmmaker, notorious for vertiginous New York psychodramas like Bad Lieutenant, King of New York and Ms. 45. Gathering a camera crew in what seems like a spontaneous moment of inspiration, Ferrara took a room in the hotel and spent three months shambling through a gallery of characters who all were longtime or onetime residents of the hotel, both famous (Ethan Hawke, Milos Forman), and not so, summoning old ghosts to rise and swirl around rooms whose walls talk loudly, incessantly. Chelsea on the Rocks, full of loose tongues and combustible lore, is Ferrara’s blue valentine to an institution.
“These people were waiting,” Ferrara said, entertaining a post-screening audience last week at Sitges. “You knock on the door and ask them a question. They didn’t need any direction.” Ferrara captures some amazing yarns. Like the night Forman (the Czech émigré director of Hair and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) wound up donning a skirt during a fire alarm in the middle of the night, during which the corridors were flooded and an elderly tenant, who had left meat burning on her stove, was drowned during the firemen’s attempt to rescue her. Nothing that is revealed in dozens of conversations ever contradicts the theory that the Chelsea, built in 1885, is situated over some weird vortex. Ferrara only lasted six months as a resident. “I was afraid to live in that hotel,” he said. “It’s a crazy place to live. I was glad to leave, let’s put it that way.” The film’s closing recitation, a recording of a poem read by Gregory Corso just before his death, is a reminder of what matters most about the place.
“As long as there are artists like him pounding that shit out right up to the moment he died,” Ferrara said, “there’s still hope for the planet.”