The one interview in “Dreaming Walls” that manages to successfully straddle the line between overwhelming nostalgia and the cost of gentrification comes from multimedia artist Steve Willis. What starts out as the story of how Willis snagged a residency in one of the rooms once occupied by Janis Joplin (after he produced a Mariah Carey music video in the hotel), ends with a tour of what he gave up in his settlement to remain a resident. Now living in a cramped studio, Willis lost a hallway, kitchen, and bathroom. Touring the section in the midst of renovation Willis shows the filmmakers a wall he painted blue and the toothbrush holder that once held Joplin’s toothbrush, all set to be demolished. While the hotel itself will be marked using its past residents to lure people to spend $300 a night, these small details of its rich past are apparently not worth preserving.
It’s in exploring the iconography of the hotel that the documentary shines the brightest. Van Elmbt and Duverdier are clearly well-versed in the works that were created on the grounds, or by former residents, and do their best to imbue their film with the same timeless cool that pulses through them. Excerpts from journal entries, novels, and other texts are read throughout the documentary. Imagery from films like Ronald Nameth’s “Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable” (which, ironically, was actually filmed during a week of performances in Chicago) and footage of celebrity tenants like Patti Smith are projected on the hotel’s decrepit walls, which is both an homage to filmmaker and Warhol collaborator Jonas Mekas, who pioneered projecting film on walls during live performances, and a metaphor for the history that will forever permeate throughout the hotel. The collage effect is haunting and gorgeous, although it speaks more to the lasting power of the original art than it does their implementation here.
If the goal of “Dreaming Walls” is to create one last kaleidoscopic portrait within the Chelsea before all of its soul and history is renovated away, packaged and sold as a destination for the bourgeoisie, van Elmbt and Duverdier manage to do just that, despite their film leaning more towards imitation than the truly innovative work they so revere. While it doesn’t quite rise to the artistic heights it aims for, “Dreaming Walls” will satisfy viewers who want to linger a little longer in the storied halls of the Hotel Chelsea.
Now playing in theaters.