Movie Buzzers has regularly covered First Time Fest since its inception, but this year was the first time I was actually able to make it out to the fest to cover a film. Curated and run by some wonderful people and hosted at the Roxy Hotel, this year’s opening night film wasn’t a new title, but was still a perfect choice for the small intimate festival.
Opening up the fest was actor Ethan Hawke’s 2001 directorial debut Chelsea Walls. The film is centered on the iconic Chelsea Hotel in NY, a place home to many artists, writers and free thinkers. This beatnik inspired film was made during the dawn of digital video recording and is an experimental look at a subject Hawke was passionate about.
Firstly, I’d like to get this part out of the way. The movie is pretentious as hell. But I feel confident saying that since Hawke, during his Q&A afterwards, said it himself. With the lack of a real narrative and its consistent use of voice over with wild colors, it’s easy to see how people might be turned off by such a film. That being said, the film is a super art house film and one that I thought worked in a lot of ways.
Chelsea Walls isn’t a movie I would typically seek out or have any intentions of ever watching, but I’m super glad I did. Watching a film made with a DV camcorder and then shown on Hawke’s personal 35 mm was incredible. While it has the feel of a home video, it’s artistic and colorful and grainy in a way that you wouldn’t have been able to properly capture with any other film style. To use Hawke’s words, the film is like a watercolor painting and it helps keep everything visually interesting.
The film is very poetic and while the watercolor look helps support the visuals, the music is the other incredibly important part that keeps the film moving forward. Scored by Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of Wilco, the music of Chelsea Walls is a character in and of itself. In fact, it’s almost omnipresent and relentless. I’m pretty sure there is no break in the music, it is one long moody composition transitioned into another, giving the audience a relaxing score to help take in the soothing flickering lights. It’s the most poetic part of the movie and is what helps keep you focused and glued to the screen even if there are times you may want to nod off from boredom (the movie is about 10-15 minutes too long).
The most surprising part about Chelsea Walls was its powerhouse cast. The film stars Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Kris Kristofferson, Natasha Richardson, Uma Thurman, Steve Zhan and Kevin Corrigan, among others. These folks help move the “story” along, one that’s a hodgepodge of different ideas from various Nicole Burdette plays (who adapted them herself). Each story also has its own color palette, helping each audience identify the different storylines (if you can’t keep up with it). Most of the performances are really good while others are weird, but they work with the story and the ridiculous nature of the Chelsea Hotels inhabitants.
Overall, I should have hated Chelsea Walls but I didn’t, I thought it was surprisingly good and a daring first entry for Ethan Hawke as a director. He took a lot of chances and you could feel the passion he had for the subject in this picture that was essentially “a day in the life of the people living at the Chelsea Hotel.” I think the only real way to see this film is on a big screen with a great surround sound system to get the full effect of what this movie was going for. Between its fascinating watercolor palette and incredible score, this poetic piece of cinema is worth seeking out if you’re looking for a unique cinematic experience.