The Chelsea Hotel on Film
Anthology Film Archives, April 9-12
Sid And Nancy, Dir. Alex Cox
Alex Cox’s 1986 cult classic Sid and Nancy recounts the whirlwind relationship and tragic end of punk rock’s Romeo & Juliet, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Gary Oldman is amazing, and portrays the Sex Pistols bassist hauntingly well. Chloe Webb is as terrific as she is irritating, and Nancy was most definitely the latter. Spungen’s mother confessed that Nancy was such an unruly baby she was given her first sedative at three months old. Sid and Nancy portrays the doomed couple’s descent into junkiedom, ending in Nancy’s mysterious death/murder in the Chelsea Hotel. Cox, who wrote the screenplay for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and directed the cult films Repo Man and Straight to Hell, is surprisingly safe at times in this film, and though the acting is mostly terrific, there are some scenes which drain the film of its power. At these moments Cox tries too hard: Sid and Nancy leaning up against a dumpster kissing as trash flies around them to escalating music, or, as their Chelsea Hotel room catches fire, Nancy watching the roaring flames in slow motion to portenous music. But the flaws are outweighed by Oldman’s unbelievable performance, the Sex Pistols’ music and late 1970s punk rock style, and the dark scenes of Sid and Nancy’s bleak last days in the Chelsea Hotel as the dope-sick couple crawls around, bathed in a bluish light and covered in a film of sweat and despair.
The Chelsea Girls, Dir. Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966) showcases over 210 minutes of the glamorous, drugged out personalities of Warhol’s entourage, featuring Nico, Ondine, Marie Menken, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Mario Montez, Eric Emerson, and Brigid Berlin. They say what goes up must come down, but it certainly doesn’t come down in this film. Whether you’re in Brigid Berlin’s room watching her dole out Vitamin B and Amphetamine shots to Ingrid Superstar, or watching Nico meticulously trim her platinum bangs while looking absolutely stunning and utterly vacant, visual candy never ceases. With twelve unedited reels shown side by side, with only one soundtrack audible at a time, and for long periods, total silence, these superstars coexist while performing a psychedelic waltz of their monstrous egos. The cast is so lost in self they are practically each their own country for the camera, surrounded by an ocean, yet dependent and feeding off the strange and eccentric energy of their friends. Drenched in red light, Eric Emerson remarks, “I can’t see a thing except me. That’s all there is to see.”
Though there is no explicit sex, The Chelsea Girls oozes unharnessed sexual energy, which flows from one room to the next without judgment or censorship. In a captivating scene, Mary Woronov, International Velvet, and Ingrid Superstar lounge around on a bed like teenage girls at a slumber party stoned out of their minds. The innocence of the girls’ retro dresses, tights, and shiny hair as they “play” with one another fuses with Woronov’s incredibly sensual hostility. Woronov's resulting rant is pure verbal sadomasochism, and her submissive, and otherwise intimidating, friends cower. The girl’s ten-pound eyelashes flutter as the camera zooms in and out, as Warhol dresses up the bleakness of junk, acid, and amphetamines in couture and blasts it with terrific light.
This rarely seen film is undoubtedly the holy grail of The Chelsea Hotel on film, a raw, unedited backstage pass into the extravagant, excessive everyday of Warhol’s posse in the 1960’s.
The Chelsea, Dir. Doris Chase
This 1993 video documentary by the late sculptor/experimental filmmaker Doris Chase, a longtime resident of the hotel, is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the creative inhabitants of the Chelsea. Chase began experimenting with video in the early 1970s and her work has won awards at 21 film and video festivals, as well as a permanent place in MoMA’s archives. In an interview, writer Ulick O’Connor calls the Chelsea a “Palace of the 60s under the expression of what the beatniks were trying to do in the 50s.” Although the Chelsea Hotel remains notorious for its history of rock and art legends that partied, overdosed, and raised hell, (aside from Bob Dylan, who is said to have been very pleasant) The Chelsea is a more sentimental, informative account of the unusual handful of eclectic personalities who resided there in 1993. Through her interviews we learn that most of the Chelsea’s longtime residents intended to live there temporarily, and slowly made the hotel their permanent digs. Writer Raymond Foy compares the magic of the Chelsea to the Beat Hotel in Paris, Tangiers, and North Beach. The Chelsea attempts to ask what made the hotel a special “locus” of creative activity.
Shirley Clarke Program, Dir. Shirley Clarke
Independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke founded The Teepee Video Space Troupe, and operated it out of her Chelsea Hotel penthouse where her later videos were made, including the following two videos, Savage/Love and Tongues, which are a two-part collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard and actor/director Joseph Chaiken.
Savage/Love (1981) is said to be a profession of “one man’s quest for love,” and proves worth seeing purely for the unintentional humor. Joseph Chaiken emits such creepy stalker vibes I had to stop and check my deadbolt mid-film. Scored with experimental jazz, and shot in what appears to be a prision cell, Savage/Love is one desperate man’s 26-minute long rant, a comment on obsession, co-dependency, and total insanity over a woman. The camera fixes on Chaiken’s hypnotic eyes as he says things like, “I’m haunted by your eyes in the middle of brushing my teeth. I’m haunted by your hair, by your skin when you’re not around.” From that look in his eye, I’m fairly certain he’d be wearing her skin had he the opportunity. Imagine the awkwardness of John Favreau’s phone messages in Swingers times twenty, touches of Hannibal Lector, experimental dance moves, and that only partially accounts for what goes on. Chaiken is terrific, and I was impressed he was able to deliver lines like, “I lost fifteen pounds for you, I died my hair brown for you, I covered myself in musk oil for you, I’m still hunting around for you” without cracking a smile.
If there were ever any film one shouldn’t see on mushrooms, Tongues (1982) is it. Tongues depicts “a dying man delivering his own last rites.” Aside from the dizzying early 80s special video effects, Tongues mostly consists of a straight shot of Joseph Chaiken in the lotus position as a third, black-robed arm protrudes from behind him shaking a maraca. Chaiken delivers Shepard’s wacky, stream-of consciousness dialogue so well the experience becomes, as intended, immersive, and weirdly reminiscent of Sally Field in Sybil. Chaiken shifts personalities and voices, having strange, everyday arguments with himself, which seem touching, universal, and human.Tongues captures the interior dialogue of one’s neurotic thoughts and suppressed desires.
Film #23, Dir. Harry Smith
Harry Smith’s Film # 23 (1980) was recently discovered and restored by Anthology, and is a composition of portraits, string figures and sand animation, similar to Smith’s earlier film Late Superimpositions (1964) where Smith layered two rolls of film on top of one another. The most striking images are of Patty Smith hanging out in the Chelsea, overlapped with images of trees. #23 is a visually unique piece, and flows from one unrelated image to the next smoothly to an interesting score. The film has had few public screenings, and prior to this preservation only one print was said to exist.