Ghosts in the Machinery

Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel

by George Wolf

If you don’t really know anything about Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, don’t come to Dreaming Walls expecting a thorough biography.

But even if you’ve heard only a bit about the legendary building that has known “all the immortals of the 20th century,” check in to this enigmatic documentary for a dreamlike trip through time and headspace.

Opening in 1884, the Chelsea was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in ’77. Along the way, its guestbook has seen names such as Janis, Marilyn, Dali, Cohen, Warhol, Ginsberg, and two Dylans (Bob, Thomas). Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 while staying at the Chelsea. Nancy Spungeon was stabbed to death there.

To put it mildly, the place has a history. But co-directors /co-writers Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt (along with executive producer Martin Scorsese) root their story in the present, and in the lives of current Chelsea tenants hanging on to ghosts of old New York.

Duverdier and van Elmbt artfully project some of those famous ghosts onto the Chelsea walls themselves. Others come to life through the deft weaving of old and new footage, creating touching moments such as tenant Merle Lister Levine effectively dancing with her younger self via choreography she first performed at the Chelsea decades ago.

Those were the halcyon days of a glorious bohemianism, days remembered by Merle and other current tenants while jackhammers and lawsuits bring the march of time and money to their apartment doors.

The Chelsea has been undergoing renovations for almost a decade. And the plan for a new, lavish and extremely expensive hotel has been prolonged by the legal maneuverings of longtime tenants fighting to stay.

As these residents compare the construction to “the slow motion rape of the building,” and “a grand old tree that’s been chopped down,” a compelling and bittersweet narrative emerges.

These rich personalities push aside the caution tape and stacks of knick knacks, inviting us in to honor the legacy of a place they call home. And, as the best of these stories often do, the intimacy actually allows for a more universal resonance.

Dreaming Walls is a story of art and commerce and bricks and mortar, of glory days usurped by time, and some wonderful, weary souls who find comfort in ghost stories.

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