"This place used to be beautiful. Everybody lived here. Everybody who was anybody."—Cop
In those heady Bohemian days, when artists struggled to make the world a beautiful place, the Chelsea Hotel was a haven. Now ghosts, dreamers who cannot live up to the demands of their muses, haunt its rooms. For this latest collection of misfits, even a brief stay at the Chelsea can bring tragedy as easily as triumph.
In the opening scene of Chelsea Walls, adapted from Nicole Burdette's play, a writer (Kris Kristofferson) tries to entice a woman (Natasha Richardson) to bed, but she demurs. "You're not even here," he says, "You're thinking about something." In this moment, the film immediately betrays its stage origins. Characters in Chelsea Walls point things out to one another; they talk on telephones to reveal their deepest secrets. What should be apparent through the lens of the camera has to be spelled out, as if we are sitting in the back row and cannot be trusted to see the faces and movements of the performers.
In his directorial debut, Ethan Hawke tries gamely to spice up the plotless proceedings by color-coding the different key stories at the Chelsea. The story of two folk singers is told through a red filter. Ross (Steve Zahn) is a hedonist, who seems to use his artistic pretensions merely as a way of meeting cool new people. Terry (Robert Sean Leonard) is sensitive. We know this because he turns down sex with a high school student, then calls a girl back in Minnesota for a confessional scene. Acting Class 101 tells us that this equals sensitivity.
The yellow section chronicles the self-destructive Bud (Kristofferson), an alcoholic writer who uses booze and women to fuel his creativity. He makes a phone call to tell us that he "can't function alone" but is "scared to death to love." His path crosses briefly with Grace (Uma Thurman), a waitress at the pretentious artist's bar downstairs. Her apartment is predominantly green, and her big problem is that every man flirts with her (including sensitive painter Vincent D'Onofrio).
But the most annoying tale is tinted blue. Val (Mark Webber) and Audrey (Rosario Dawson) are a neurotic, clingy couple who get poetic voice-overs to express their undying but doomed love to one another. Val has a poem in his pocket called "The Insufferable Hunger of the Damned." That means, if I remember Acting 101 again, that he too is sensitive. Meanwhile, just in case you ever forget that all these people are lost souls, a nameless poet (John Seitz) stands in the lobby reciting Dylan Thomas the entire movie.
In spite of the cinematography, done on digital video and transferred to film, Chelsea Walls plays a lot like pieces of an actor's workshop caught on film. Each vignette feels too abstract to be absorbing, and the characters are pretty much Bohemian archetypes. Hawke tries to intercut the segments so that the film takes on the effect of puzzle pieces arranged into a larger picture, something "meaningful" and—again—"sensitive." In a short interview included on the DVD, he talks mostly about how the film was intended as a learning experience (Robert Sean Leonard also has a three-minute interview, but seems a little uncomfortable). On Hawke's commentary track, the director spends an awful lot of time defending the film from negative reviews about his "indulgence." But mostly, he just spends time praising the actors and pausing to admire his own work. All this suggests, again, that Chelsea Walls is really an exercise in stage acting that somehow became a feature film. He has managed to rope in an admirable cast, mostly friends (and his wife Uma), many of whom, according to his commentary, ended up on the cutting room floor. But for all the alleged additional subplots, all we get for "deleted scenes" on this disc is a single four-minute outtake with Spalding Gray as a gay theatrical agent. And some of the performances we do get left with (especially Webber and Dawson) feel stiff and deliberate. I cannot fault the script here: I am sure this stuff all worked fine on stage. But everything feels very claustrophobic, and Hawke's tendency to simply let characters talk out their feelings rather than showing through action (that's why they call it "acting") makes the scenes feel even more closed in on themselves.
Chelsea Walls does have some genuinely poetic moments, but it works so hard to be "poetic," trying to ram it down our throats, instead of allowing its poetry to evolve organically out of the material. Perhaps this explains why this particular collection of Chelsea residents pale in comparison to the luminaries of the past. But mostly, it seems to be the fault of director Ethan Hawke, who does not seem to trust the material to speak for itself.
If I have given the impression that I do not like Chelsea Walls, I should clarify that individual scenes make a strong impression. But the film as a whole left me cold, like an academic exercise, in spite of the fact that I have known a lot of people like the residents of the Chelsea in this movie. Whatever real passion might be found in these people has been effaced by overstylization and an insistence on talking rather than doing. An experienced actor like Hawke should have recognized this cardinal cinematic (and even theatrical) mistake.
The court orders that the Chelsea Hotel be cleared out of these dregs and refurbished for a new generation. Sensitivity be damned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Ethan Hawke
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