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The promotional blurb for Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel promises that it “takes us through the hotel’s storied halls, exploring its living body and the bohemian origins that contributed to its mythical stature.” Well, yes and no. Certainly, references are made to famous artists such as Patti Smith and Janis Joplin, but most of the film concentrates on the old guard living there.

The elders live at the Chelsea Hotel as it is being renovated as a luxury hotel. They live among scaffolding, pushing their walkers under ladders and noting where they used to live before their one-bedroom apartment became a studio. In one poignant scene, a young construction worker dances with an ancient choreographer.

These hold-outs look forward to the flashy renovation with as much longing as dread. They know they will not be able to afford the new rents. They are used to being treated poorly, like so much detritus. They are cynical and hopeless.

They remember when the Chelsea stood for something — or, at least, they remember the stories even older renters told them about when the old place stood as an icon of the 1960s, back when Andy Warhol’s Factory was in residence. Back when sex and violence permeated the walls, when dance and art defined the halls.

However, the history of the old place squats coldly on the back burner. Patti Smith opens the film with thoughts on Dylan Thomas’ stay, followed by a mushy montage of Dylan, Dali, Marilyn Monroe, and Arthur C. Clark, with the obligatory reference to Leonard Cohen’s tryst. But cut quickly to codgers needing help up the iconic stairs. An old lady named Bettina Grossman, did not take the buy-out by the new owners and was stuck there unto death. Like Rose Corey, living there since 1987, who says, “I’ve had six or eight lives here.”

Directors Maya Duverdier and Amélie van Elmbt made a stab at cinema verité. They also linked current dwellers’s mentions of their predecessors, like artist, Larry Rivers, with vintage films of the good old days. The directors dreamily project famous faces — unidentified — on the crumbling walls. One of the executive producers is Martin Scorsese.

Dreaming Walls is less about a hotel’s glorious past or luxurious future than it is about its theme: refinement through callous capitalism.

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Martha K. Baker (Archived Contributor)

I first taught film at Lakeland College in Wisconsin in 1969 and became a professional film reviewer in 1976 in St. Louis, Mo. Through the years, I have reviewed films for the St. Louis Business Journal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Episcopal Life, and KWMU (NPR), among other outlets. I've reviewed at KDHX radio, my current outlet, for nearly 20 years.