Little wonder the unknown filmmaker with a half decent idea is unable to catch a break. Yet another better known personality has squandered their chances on their directorial debut, as in this case, where Ethan Hawke has brought such crass pabulum to the screens that future film financiers can point to this mess as another excuse why experimental digital cinema needs to be kept on an extremely tight leash.
Chelsea Walls must have been one of those “good ideas at the time” movies… get a famous actor to make his directorial debut, have him cast his wife and a bunch of actors he has either friends with and/or has worked with in the past and/or has always wanted to work with, and find him a screenplay by a neophyte playwright which is a love letter of sorts to the building he admires and has resided in. Punks and film fans know the Chelsea as the place where Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungeon. Music fans know the hotel as the place where Jimi Hendrix once resided, and literary fans are aware of the many acclaimed plays Arthur Miller wrote while living amongst its hallowed walls, as well as the place where Dylan Thomas died. And now, thanks to Hawke, the Chelsea will live in infamy as the centerpiece in what will likely end up being the worst film of 2002.
How bad is Chelsea Wallsr How about a couple hundred walkouts at the screening I attended, a good portion coming during one particularly painful dialogue between costars Kris Kristofferson and Tuesday Weld which might have only been two or three minutes in length, but seemed to drag on for half an hour. It was during these scene, less than halfway through the movie, that the person who invited me to this screening left. I stayed, if only because it would be improper to trash a bad movie I did not stay to watch till the end. By the end of the film, I wanted something like a Crux Du Candlestick, a little pin the San Francisco Giants used to give people who not only braved an evening of watching the Giants at home but surviving the brutal elements that would chill an Eskimo.
The movie itself is about a number of the bohemians who populate the hotel during a specific 24 hour period. Over the nearly two hour running time we are introduced to over two dozen characters of which only one, the drunken writer played by Kristofferson, do we spent any amount of time with to call a real character. The remainder of the dwellers are poets and musicians who try to draw their inspiration from the ghosts who allegedly haunt the building, never once realizing what makes one a good poet or musician is not the muse of a non-existent spectre but talent and practice. Instead of character development, the audience is forced to sit through rambling speech after rambling conversation about how every thought they have has so much resonance to their surroundings, yet these speeches go on for so long, we have completely forgotten any point they may have been trying to make by the time each story ends.
I don’t know what Hawke was thinking while shooting this film, but there is no excuse for bad cinematography, especially when the DP is one of my personal heroes, Tom Richmond. Richmond is probably the best cameraman you have never heard of, even though you have likely seen his work with Roger Avary or CM Talkington or James Gray. Not that anyone would know from this mess, which is often out of focus or “artfully” pixelated. Richmond, you need to stick to working with real filmmakers and with real film stock.
The only decent part of the entire film happens down in the hotel’s basement club, when hotel resident Skinny Bones sings a beautiful jazzy rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. However, director Hawke does not understand his own film, so he keeps cutting away to yet another of Kristofferson’s drunken speeches, this time to an unknown recipient on the telephone. Only in the last minute of the song does Hawke allow the magic to happen naturally.
The most prescient moment comes when Hawke makes his “cameo” as Uma’s love interest, calling her on the phone from Hollywood, where he tries to convince her to come out to California.
“My movie is shit!” he exclaims to her.
It is the one genuine laugh in the entire film… for all the wrong reasons.
I give the film an F for effort and an F for execution. A complete waste of time.