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Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel (15) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt, Belgium/France/Netherlands/Sweden/US, 2022, 80 mins

Cast:  Merle Lister (self) and other residents

Review by Ben Thomas

Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel, more or less, opens with a quote from Patti Smith. She says, “I’ve always liked to be where the big guys were”.

The documentary using a patient, almost somnambulist, technique attempts to discover why people moved to the infamous hotel and why spirits continue to remain there through its redevelopment. The residents speculate on what the hotel will be like once the renovation is complete. Some are positive and others less so. The sense is that nobody knows for sure.

Despite the documentary being about the physical redevelopment of the hotel, there is plenty of room for discussion of the spiritual nature of the building. A construction worker talks about the ghosts of the past – some lost, some trying to find a way out – and the internal atmosphere you feel in the building given its history. Later on, another resident mentions the supernatural “energy in the building”, but is quickly put down by another resident who believes theories about hauntings or happenings are just stories (“Alice in Wonderland”).

In Dreaming Walls, we do get some sense of the contemporary politics around the building, as well as the diverse range of people that the hotel attracted both in the past and present.  One resident, a particularly insightful interview about a quarter of the way through the film, talks about the slipping away of time, a time when New York was bohemian and avant garde, when the Chelsea Hotel was an icon rather than a remnant of counterculture. Instantly captivating, these are profound reflections on the motivations for why someone would move to the hotel and the wish fulfilment it provided.

A perspective such as this also adds to the tremendous sense of loss that invades the film. There is an emptiness captured by the camera, with gloomy hallways and unfurnished rooms, a gnawing that people are waiting for something that isn’t ever coming back. The film attempts to capture the feeling of the shadows of the avant garde as haunting synths make up most of the score. But the documentary isn’t hopeless. There’s a hope that while the “grand old tree” has come down, the roots are deep enough and life vibrant enough, that people will recapture their desire to share art, to create and be free without restrictions, the utopianism which brought people to the Chelsea Hotel in the first place.

Though there is an interesting use of archive footage, providing some patchy historical context, Dreaming Walls requires you to have a substantive amount of prior knowledge about the Chelsea Hotel to fully understand the purpose. The film evades expectations in that it doesn’t address much of the hysteria around the building. Smith, Warhol, Monroe, et al., are confined to projected images which tease you and leave you wanting more; a clambering for the hotel as it was, rather than facing up to the reality of what it is now. The film, instead, is primarily spacious and meditative. There is a sobriety to the mourning in the film, it isn’t looking back through rose-tint as much as it is looking around for phantoms.

Dreaming Walls certainly doesn’t glamourise the hotel, far from it, but it doesn’t quite spark significant interest in the building or the people who lived there. The stories are interesting enough without ever really cutting through into something deeply emotionally resonant. There are fragments of parties or creativity, where you get a sense of what it must have been like to walk the halls, knock on doors and join in with choruses, but that is not the overwhelming feeling of the film. It is a documentary that struggles for energy which, while being about a building drained of a lot of its energy, would benefit from more contrast between now and then. In Dreaming Walls we don’t ever fully get the sense as to why people would move there, the adrenaline is absent.

Nevertheless, Dreaming Walls is a careful piece of filmmaking which never makes a spectacle of those being interviewed. The residents are thinking and directing presences in the film. We are not made to mock the fact they have never left the Chelsea Hotel but rather question the places that people, for whatever reason, can’t – or don’t – want to move on from. The film entertains the plausibility that many people do want to live in close proximity to the happiest and most vibrant times of their lives, even if that means living in the shadows.

Dreaming Walls is available in cinemas and on demand from 20th January