The Chelsea Hotel is celebrated this week at Anthology, in part because that moldering red-brick one-building Montmartre housed a number of New American Cinema luminaries—notably Shirley Clarke (who occupied the penthouse), Harry Smith, and several Warhol superstars, as well as documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty. All are heard from in “The Chelsea Hotel on Film” (April 9 through 12).
The high point of this dense little series is the preservation premiere of a recently rediscovered, 20-minute-plus Smith opus, Film #23. Seemingly shot around 1970 (much of it in the Chelsea) and assembled a decade later, the footage is similar to that which Smith used in his four-screen abstract opera Mahagonny. So is the musical accompaniment, which excerpts a 1956 recording of Kurt Weill’s Johnny Johnson. A series of posed portraits (including Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith) and tableaux are superimposed over string figures, storefronts, and sand (or ground-up pill) animation. It’s straightforward, if characteristically enigmatic, although the printing of the two strands of images is markedly more precise and hence visually compelling than that in Smith’s 1964 Late Superimpositions. Michel Auder’s murky Video Visit: Harry Smith, Room #705, Chelsea Hotel 1971 rounds out the bill, documenting a 24-minute audience with the man himself. Amid occasional phone calls and the screeching of two parakeets flying loose around the room, Smith entertains his young neighbor, while hospitably rolling a joint. It must be good shit. Smith appears to be enjoying himself, rapping (which is to say, drawling) a blue streak while Auder is reduced to helpless giggles.
The show’s other attractions include Robert Flaherty’s 1948 Louisiana Story (with music by sometime Chelsea resident Virgil Thomson), Andy Warhol’s 1966 double-screen epic Chelsea Girls, Doris Chase’s 1993 video documentary The Chelsea, a selection of Jonas Mekas’s copious Chelsea footage, and Sid and Nancy (1986), Alex Cox’s hyperreal re-creation of the hotel’s most infamous tabloid scandal: the murder of Nancy Spungen by her drug-addled lover, Sid Vicious. Abel Ferrara’s sleazelegiac documentary Chelsea on the Rocks was to have been the series centerpiece before it was pulled by its producers.