Dreaming Walls

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Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Dreaming Walls
"Dreaming Walls is less a documentary than an attempt at a sense memory." | Photo: Clin D'eoil Film

One of the details that might stick with you is an argument regarding provision of toilet cleaning. That the room had not previously contained a bathroom meant that it had never before had an attached responsibility to maintain that quantity of tile and glass and porcelain in a state of hygiene. As the room was to be amended during conversion to include such a facility, that need which had not previously been met by the occupant should continue to be met by forces external. Which is perhaps rational, but not reasonable.

This is the Chelsea Hotel. Irrational, unreasonable, infamous. Dreaming Walls is less a documentary than an attempt at a sense memory. It owes a debt to a 1981 BBC Arena documentary named for the hotel, but neither provides context the other lacks. They are instead frames of reference, anchors some four decades apart mooring a place adrift in culture into a particular set and space.

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That BBC production is some 55 minutes long and available on iPlayer currently. Dreaming Walls is some 80 minutes long and makes use of the cinema screen and its access to bring us further into that space. A debut for co-director Maya Duverdier, a first documentary (though third feature) for co-writer Amelie van Elmbt the film shows itself as both sure and gentle. If this were considered as a portrait then it's a loving one.

The Chelsea Hotel was built as apartments, is in the long and complex processes of becoming private residences again. Dreaming Walls visits the site some nine years into conversion, work still ongoing. Elevators outside the walls are just one of the inversions. A miniature excavator digs away, attended by an external operator. Walls don't yet stand, marked by skeletal frames that await plasterboard and finishing. Corridors are a matter of perspective, between unfinished boudoirs, between well read books.

Everywhere outlines. Wire portraits, silhouettes, dances. Famous faces are projected upon walls where their shadows might once have fallen. Dylan Thomas stayed here during the events seen in Set Fire To The Stars. Nico was here before 1988. Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001 here, though the essence of collaboration between him and Kubrick and its roots in stories like the Sentinel (of Eternity) make even that a complex attribution. Burroughs (as seen in his eponymous movie) was invited to dinner here by the BBC, close to another flame of celebrity, Andy Warhol's Heat. Nancy Spungen died here. Quentin Crisp may have been a Naked Civil Servant but here he was already become a recursion of tourism. Staying where people stayed because people like him stayed there, because people like him stayed there, because that's where people stay.

Though they don't always. Each step of conversion is a difficult one, full of the impositions of character and process. "Finish the book; or kill self," reads the graffiti. "We're not people we are ghosts." Haunting a "standalone temple of bohemianism."

222 West 23rd Street. About a two hour walk from the corner of Lexington and 125 if you don't want to keep anyone waiting. The dozen stories of red brick conceal a gross of stories, more. Some of which you'll already know. Though I didn't, and didn't learn from this film, that the restaurant within it is not only New York's oldest Spanish dining room, but named for Don Quixote. An ingenious gentleman might remark that an unreliability of narration and the influence of circumstances for both reader and recorder might also impact a venue like the Hotel Chelsea.

There'd be opportunities to digress into topics like class war, gentrification, the erosions and erasures of urban life, the essence of historicity in a building twice as old now as it was in the Sixties that made it famous. In a place where we see in this film films filmed in this place projected upon the walls, aspects of repetition and fame and liminality would all be in keeping.

There is new footage, old video. Clips of that Arena documentary whose own filming was complicated by the presence of another crew simultaneously filming something else. Here the other crew is construction, differently participating. Paso doble with hard hat and walking frame. We hear a tune from what might be a telephone or a music box. What, now, is the difference?

A score by Michael Andrews and a soundtrack including two pieces by KePA contribute to a sense of place, but not as much the place itself as a perception of that place coloured by its history and associations. These associations might be through superimposition, intercut archive, events that occur in front of the camera that illustrate something if not truth. I was minded of Lt Dengler opening his door in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. What we see is less reference than an effort to conjure reverence, a synecdoche through synaesthesia.

The walls may dream, but they don't talk. That's left to the residents, the ghosts, and they are less silent than those behind the camera. Layered here, sometimes physically so, almost dreamlike. There's a connection to reality but here a bubble of bourgeoisie is bulwark against gentrification, a mark of yet-turning tides of society and culture. Not so much a relic of old New York as a living fossil, a coelacanth hotel. Hidden depths, sometimes sleek, with flashes of life and reflection. It is short, but in its pace elegiac, perhaps literally. The ghosts may want another scene, to be a human being. Here they come now. See them run now. In lieu of checking in, you may want to check this out.

Reviewed on: 03 Jun 2022
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Documents a critical juncture in the Chelsea Hotel's history, as it prepares to evict longtime residents and transform into a luxury hotel.

Director: Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt

Writer: Maya Duverdier, Amélie van Elmbt

Year: 2022

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: Belgium, France, Netherlands, Sweden


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