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For a movie that tries to celebrate the Bohemian lifestyle and the inspiration that art provides to the world, Chelsea Walls is a dull, lifeless experience. Brew up some fresh coffee; even the toughest art house barfly will find this movie a struggle to get through.

If These Walls Could Talk

The supplemental materials are rather Spartan on the Chelsea Walls DVD
The supplemental materials are rather Spartan on the Chelsea Walls DVD

Set in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, which during the past 100 years has gained a reputation as a safe haven for artists and authors such as Brendan Behan and James Schuyler, Chelsea Walls is a movie without any formal narrative. It simply presents the lives of some of the hotel’s fictional inhabitants, occasionally intermingling them.

The primary stories revolve around a struggling writer, Bud (Kris Kristofferson, Payback), and his various dalliances with ladies. Other inhabitants are Frank (Vincent D’Onofrio, Men in Black), a struggling painter, Terry (Robert Sean Leonard, Dead Poets Society), a struggling musician, and his friend Ross (Steve Zahn, Joy Ride), who is simply struggling.

There’s also a story of young love involving Audrey (Rosario Dawson, Josie and the Pussycats) and Val (Mark Webber, Boiler Room). Their story is an excuse to pull out the poetry and emotional analyses that only teenagers can get away with. Director Ethan Hawke wants to present a tapestry in which some struggling artists find success while others continue to struggle, and still others struggle themselves into oblivion. Unfortunately, the movie is simply a collection of dramatic sketches and poetry readings. It’s too preoccupied with being artistic and too self-absorbed to have any real impact.

Not Even Wenders Country

Another recent movie about a fleabag hotel with quirky characters is The Million Dollar Hotel, directed by Wim Wenders. That movie, while also on the plodding side, at least had the benefit of some characters that were interesting to watch, and it benefitted from having an underlying theme that said “life is perfect.”

Wenders’ film also had a narrative structure bracketed by the suicide of one of the film’s main characters. Although Chelsea Walls starts with a body bag being carried out of the hotel, the film never uses that as a structural device, even though the movie returns to that scene at the film’s end.

Hawke must be given credit, however, for providing some scenes of real atmosphere. Particularly effective are the scenes in the hotel’s lounge and when the film’s music, provided by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, kicks into high gear. Real-life jazz singer Jimmy Scott also provides the movie with a certain amount of soul.

However, in trying to be a movie equivalent of a jazz tune, Chelsea Walls trips over its own artistic notions and pretensions. By the end, most viewers will be climbing the walls trying to get out, as John Seitz (G.I. Jane) delivers yet another Dylan Thomas soliloquy Kristofferson delivers a deep, drunken introspective analysis of his life, finding himself in a bad predicament because he’s “afraid of love.”

DVD Extras

The supplemental materials are rather Spartan.

There are short interviews with Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard, but they’re in keeping with Lions Gate’s “for-the-DVD” interviews: they’re shallow and starry-eyed, and the interviewer sounds like she’s a journalism student from a junior college. Hawke’s interview is also technically sloppy. The left and right audio channels are reversed.

The most substantial feature is a running commentary by Hawke. In it he reveals a lot of good information, including the fact that the movie was made for $100,000 as part of a digital experiment with Indigent Productions. With $1 million, the production company made 10 digital movies.

What makes the commentary engaging is Hawke’s unabashed earnestness. It gets to the point where he seems downright infatuated with his own work. But he goes a little too far when he comments (and one can only hope he was joking) that the people who don’t like Chelsea Walls are not nice and should see a therapist.

Even as Hawke bristles at the criticisms of the movie being too self-indulgent, he reveals the original cut was 3 1/2 hours long. Thankfully he made no promise of a special edition director’s cut DVD.

While the Special Features menu has a section entitled “Deleted Scenes,” there’s actually only one. It features two characters who don’t even appear in the final cut. The scene, presented in “raw” digital, with some behind the scenes chatter, is extremely forgettable.

Also available are English and Spanish subtitles.

Picture and Sound

Since the film was shot digitally, DVD makes for a fine platform with which to present Chelsea Walls. Don’t adjust your set. The graininess, blurriness, and tinting are all part of the director’s artistic vision. The picture is presented in widescreen 1.85:1 anamorphic with both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Stereo audio tracks.