“A lot of history is in this building and ghosts going around,” says a construction worker in “Dreaming Walls,” dispatched to the seemingly endless renovation taking place on 23rd Street in New York at the Hotel Chelsea. Buried underneath scaffolding with electrical wires hanging from the ceilings, one has to look harder for hints of the 12-story building’s more illustrious history as a refuge for the likes of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, yet as the construction worker is naturally inclined to talk about his grander dreams of becoming to an architect to one of the last remaining tenants, the magic that still exists there to inspire becomes as much a part of what remains as any debris.
Capturing how the abstract and tangible live side by side with one another becomes crucial for co-directors Amelie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier when giving a sense of place means showing how holding onto memories can prevent the few left in the building from seeing the reality of it now and how those eager to demolish it can’t see what will be lost if they succeed in their goals. The filmmakers impressively keep nostalgia to a minimum when overt references to Chelsea lore are few and far between, opening with a clip of a twentysomething Patti Smith register her disbelief she’s on the same rooftop where Dylan Thomas once stood to set the tone but shrewdly seizing on elements of the building’s disrepair such as the plastic sheets draped over open windows and barren walls to project the past onto the present, much as it exists in the minds of those the film follows.
No reason is given for how the residents who have hung onto their flats at the Hotel Chelsea have managed to do so, only that they aren’t likely to ever leave as the conditions become more and more untenable with the constant cacophony of drilling to greet them in the morning and an already fussy elevator hardly improving with age. Although the husband of a painter named Susan refers to his wife as “one of the few in this building who does art,” you suspect most were attracted to living in the Chelsea because of it, whether it was Steve, who scored a nook of his own from the building’s beloved former proprietor Stanley Bard after bringing Mariah Carey there to sign on its staircase for the music video for “Anytime You Need a Friend,” or Rose, who has proudly stayed since 1987 through “marriage, drugs and [various] careers,” concluding “people here are remnants of another time here in New York.”
Although those sticking around for such reasons naturally come with their quirks, a few are already see themselves living in the lap of luxury, with one couple outfitting their apartment inside with a tacky chandelier and his wife laughing off one longtime resident’s belief that “there’s energy in the building,” with a Marie Antoinette-esque dismissal, “That’s Alice in Wonderland, my dear.” In fact, van Elmbt and Duverdier refrain from ever making a fairy tale out of “Dreaming Walls” or suggesting that ever was the case when so many of the stories there ended in heartbreak of all kinds, but nonetheless offer a firm rebuttal in illuminating the spirit of the Hotel Chelsea to the point it’s tactile enough for anyone to see, honoring a place with artistry akin to someone who might’ve stayed there with the perspective to look beyond the brick and mortar to understand what makes a house a home.
“Dreaming Walls” will screen at Berlinale on February 13th at noon at Zoo Palast 2, February 17th at the CinemaxX 4 at 8:30 pm, February 18th at 5 pm at CinemaxX 3, February 18th at 10 pm at the Zoo Palast 1 and February 20th at 9 pm at the Zoo Palast 2.