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CHELSEA WALLS (director: Ethan Hawke; screenwriter: Nicole Burdette/from the play by Ms. Burdette; cinematographers: Tom Richmond/ Richard Rutkowski; editor: Adriana Pacheco; music: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco; cast: Robert Sean Leonard (Terry Olson), Steve Zahn (Eric Ross), Jimmy Scott (Skinny Bones), Rosario Dawson (Audrey), Mark Webber (Val), Kevin Corrigan (Crutches), Kris Kristofferson (Bud), Natasha Richardson (Mary), Uma Thurmin (Grace), Vincent D’onofrio (Frank), Harris Yulin (Bud’s Agent), Tuesday Weld (Greta), Paz de la Huerta (High School Girl), Frank Whaley (Lynny), Bianca Bakija (Lorna Doone), Matthew Del Negro (Cop), Paul D. Failla (Cop), John Seitz (Dean, old-timer reading Dylan Thomas poems in the hallway); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Pamela Koffler/Gary Winick/Alexis Alexanian/ Christine Vachon; Lions Gate; 2001)
“It’s a beautifully accomplished lyrical meditation on a bunch of despondent and vulnerable characters living in the renown Chelsea Hotel …”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s a beautifully accomplished lyrical meditation on a bunch of despondent and vulnerable characters living in the renown Chelsea Hotel, a New York City landmark residence on West 23rd Street for artists that has seen its better days (Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Gregory Corso, Brendan Behan, and countless other artists stayed here).

The film’s underlining mantra is — Who’s to say who’s an artist?

Chelsea Walls is an experimental art film that is well acted in an introspective and languid manner, and is based on the meandering stage play by actress Nicole Burdette. Despite its inability to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the plotless film bursts forth in its slow pace with a dreamy study of characters. By featuring too many characters it never gets around to covering all of them fairly. But the film overcomes such limits and shines by touching on scenes that are pure poetry and worth their weight in gold, even though the rant poetry heard throughout seemed like bad poetry — except for the Dylan Thomas musings by the old-timer in the elevator (Seitz). One such character who got lost in the shuffle was played by Little Jimmy Scott (his character was inspired by Miles Davis). Scott’s a gambler and a jazz singer in the hotel’s nightclub, as he had that great look of the crazed artist living his trip in both his work and off-hours. But, alas, all we saw were glimpses of Mr. Scott and though he seemed like a fascinating character we never got more than a tease of what he was all about. Unfortunately quite a few scenes were left up in the air, leaving the viewer with a sense of puzzlement as to what the ‘Big Picture’ was all about. But when the scenes worked, the film took on a magical power that only a few such films about artists has ever accomplished.

The five nihilistic separate stories taking place during a single day,; it felt like it was a Bob Dylan album played in a dimly lit hotel hallway where those in their rooms are dancing to their own creative tunes and the viewer was right there looking through as the peepholes.

The musical score by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco paints the film with a glistening melodic mood that is hard to forget.

Chelsea Walls had a uniqueness that pulled you into this raunchy but surprisingly appetizing place, and allowed you to see all the beauty and depravity that you cared to witness in this artist-friendly enclave. To his credit actor Ethan Hawke in his directorial debut, has pulled off a work of artistic merit by deftly bringing the hotel and its characters to life in this haze-like setting. Hawke caught the poetry of the the film’s small moments, and even though the film wasn’t able to come up with anything big to say — all those small wonderful moments of acting, of interesting visual effects and of imaginative sound bites, were enough of a treat to make this an absorbing film.

The story that gets the most film time revolves around aging novelist Kris Kristofferson and his booze problem and heavy macho sex trip. Kristofferson wrestles with his fears and wonders if in the process he has also ruined things for his separated wife (Tuesday Weld), who still loves him but realizes that he’s too far gone to choose anyone else to love but himself. Kristofferson’s latest fling is with a much younger lover (Natasha Richardson), who feels she will never be able to compete with his work for his full attention. Kristofferson, on his way to becoming the film’s most clichéd and boring figure, blurts out “There are only three men left–unfortunately, we’re all drunks.” It’s a throwaway line that the film should have been satisfied that it caught his character and moved onto other things instead of coming back to him repeatedly as that witty drunk who is supposed to be such an adorable scoundrel, but who gets his just desserts when he’s left alone to live out his misery.

The Uma Thurman (her real-life husband is Ethan Hawke) and Rosario Dawson stories revolve around them as struggling poets who are flustered both by their lack of financial security and with the men in their life whom they love without knowing why (Uma works nights as a waitress in the hotel’s nightclub, while Dawson lives in near poverty). In a one-sided long-distance phone conversation Uma has with her jerky self-absorbed Hollywood screenwriter boyfriend Sam (Hawke’s voice), it is shown how he treats her like dirt but she still longs for this long-distance romance. When Vincent D’Onofrio as another potential suitor comes calling, he is personified as the sensitive but socially backward painter whom she in turn treats like dirt. Dawson finds a kind of puppy love in Mark Webber but when his older brother shows up in crutches (Kevin Corrigan), he tempts the uninspired poet to leave her and go with him to get some real money — as Webber is dismayed by the poverty his girlfriend can live with for the sake of her art. Yet, the Webber character is torn about leaving the poetess he professes to love. In one great scene, she shaves him and spruces him up in his suit and tie as he leaves for a trip to Mexico.

The other story to catch some interest was the saga of aspiring rock musician roommates Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn, who have a tiny room adjacent to the hotel’s flashing neon sign. Leonard’s a Dylan-esque guitar player and singer-composer from Minnesota still aching for a girl back home that he hardly knows, but he is willing to give everything up for his music. His druggie pal is more interested in partying than getting his musical career started.

Chelsea Walls was filmed in digital video for about $100,000. Its bohemian attitude it regaled itself in most likely will upset as many people as it pleases. The film conveys the stale theme of the long-suffering artist, and that theme and visionary story will not grab everyone in the same way. But the film had an authentic feel to it, as it caught the true quality of those living for their art in squalor and frustration. After all, it’s the haunting mood it sets and the strong depiction of the characters that count the most and make the film a special treat for those who are receptive to its virtues.

REVIEWED ON 10/25/2002 GRADE: A –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”