One New York institution (Abel Ferrara, b. 1951, the Bronx) regards another (The Hotel Chelsea, b. 1883, West 23rd Street) in Chelsea on the Rocks.
The nominal topic here is the end of an era at this red-brick Queen Anne Historical Place, where a timeline of America’s greatest artists have puked in the toilets. Most of Ferrara’s material dates from 2007, during the ousting of long-reigning manager David Bard, a famously sympathetic landlord to infamously cash-strapped artists, who cultivated the hotel’s reputation as a haven for the insolvent-but-creative. One interviewee remembers Harry Smith getting $30,000 behind in rent. “Supposedly, they wanna make it like the Chateau Marmont,” says another, the eviction of long-term tenants looming.
Chelsea on the Rocks is Ferrara’s first feature documentary (forthcoming are projects on Little Italy’s Mulberry Street and a women’s prison in Naples, Italy). He conducts the interviews—introduced with no on-screen nametags—and interjects profanities in a rasp that sounds like he has been smoking thermal insulation. This is also the first Ferrara film that doesn’t congeal: Contrasting the mostly middle-aged tenants/talking heads are flashes of youthful Dionysians and re-enactments of legendary celebrity dissipation on the Chelsea’s premises, including the death of Sid’s Nancy Spungen (Bijou Phillips, looking and sounding considerably better than the real thing) and Janis Joplin’s near-collapse (also resurrected in stock footage, sitting in with the Grateful Dead). And how to justify the abrupt interjection of 9/11 and the disconcerting musical contributions from Ferrara and Ethan Hawke? Usually, the weaving eloquence of Ferrara’s filmmaking suffices to draw one in. Chelsea rambles—and in a way that makes you want to move down the bar.
The director of Bad Lieutenant has always been a study in contradiction. He is cultivator of his own wily-wino folk legend. When I worked at Kim’s Video, the phone number on his account went to a liquor store. In one interview, he claimed to forget having made the movie Fear City. And yet he has kept up a pace of filmmaking, over three decades, that the strictest teetotaling professional would envy.
I remember Ferrara introducing his film Mary, one of three very-good-to-great movies he made this decade, all barely screened in the U.S. He brought up a hack New York Times reviewer’s dismissal of a confessional scene as “embarrassing.” “Embarrassing? He’s on his knees, begging God. What’s he supposed to be? Cool?” Ferrara is never afraid to risk ridiculousness, essential when dealing in religious abjection and intoxication. And for someone who takes his artistic gambles, it’s only surprising he hasn’t rolled snake eyes more.