If you ever lived in New York City, or visited there at least once, chances are you’ve seen some of the subjects that slip in and out of Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel, a new documentary that looks at the remaining residents of the famous (or infamous, depending on which story you’ve heard) landmark. Generously described as “eccentric,” these men and women, typically older, seem to be in a different world than our own, lost in either the distant past or gazing into an uncertain future. They are living ghosts, and the crowded masses typically ignore them or, worse, pity them.
What’s so ingenious about Dreaming Walls, and what sets it apart from other fiction and non-fiction works about the urban landmark, is that it reaffirms these “lost” people and finds beauty and truth in their existence. The documentary looks at the long and fascinating history of the Chelsea Hotel and argues passionately for the people who choose to remain there and continue to make their art, even when the building itself, and the world around them, are rapidly changing.
The documentary begins in the past, as one would expect with the Chelsea Hotel as its subject matter. Once home to such famous figures as Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Madonna (to name just a few), the hotel’s heyday has long since passed, as the picture immediately establishes with visual and aural montages of these past luminaries being replaced with stark, silent images of the present, with empty hallways, dark rooms, and exposed foundations.
After several decades of disrepair and neglect, the Chelsea Hotel is in the process of being updated and transformed to compete with the gentrification of modern Manhattan. Instead of artists roaming the halls, construction workers walk around carrying lumber. The Bob Dylans of the world no longer visit to gain inspiration for their art. What was once a haven of lost souls with only a dime and a dream has now become a nearly empty vessel trapped between two time periods.
Dreaming Walls isn’t concerned with leaning in too much with memorializing the famous landmark’s storied past. Instead, directors Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt keep the focus on the people who have remained behind long after the more famous residents have left.
The documentary focuses on five subjects: a dancer (Merle Lister) who uses a walker to move around but is still choreographing spontaneous performances throughout the hotel; a couple in their 50s, who wage an unending fight against the construction noise; a wire sculptor, who uses metal paper clips to make erotic art with nude models as his muses; and a hunched over woman, who is revealed to be Bettina Grossman, one of the most influential New York City female artists of the last half of the 20th century.
It would be easy to characterize the subjects seen in Dreaming Walls as freaks, geeks, or something in-between. In a lesser documentary, they would be. In this one, they are graceful, tragic, stubborn, funny, and defiant. They are what the Chelsea Hotel is all about: maintaining that distinctly NYC bohemian spirit, even in the face of great change.
There are moments of comedy and beauty throughout the documentary: a wife angrily trying to get someone, anyone, to listen to her complaints; Merle and a female dancer, mimicking the same dance they did 40 years ago on one of the staircases; and, in one of the last scenes in the film, a tracking shot of Bettina as she slowly walks out of the hotel and onto a crowded street.
These snapshots help tell an engrossing story of a famous landmark everybody recognizes, but nobody really knows. With Dreaming Walls, what was once mysterious is now illuminated by getting to know the people who have refused to leave and give up their dreams of making art in the city that once welcomed them. It’s a fascinating and rewarding documentary, beautifully told and hauntingly captured, and it will stick with you long after the credits have rolled.