The technical and artistic heaven and hell of digital video are exhibited in Chelsea Walls as randomly as the paintings by residents that hang in the lobby of Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Hotel, where this impressionistic drama is set. Because it’s far less costly than film, DV moviemaking encourages loose experimentation, which is good; because it’s far less finicky than film, it also encourages indulgence, which is bad. C-
These Walls display it all. The experience is frustrating, sometimes maddening – especially since a lot of stylish actors readily contribute their attractive flourishes to Ethan Hawke’s feature-directing debut: Kris Kristofferson drinks and rages as a broken-down novelist, Uma Thurman twirls and daydreams as a poet, Robert Sean Leonard and Steve Zahn noodle and twang as Midwestern musicians. And there’s plenty more where these came from, including Natasha Richardson, Tuesday Weld, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Storytelling’s Mark Webber.
Although he works from a script by Nicole Burdette, based on her play of the same name, Hawke’s hipster love of the bohemian emotional anarchy embodied by the hotel (long-term tenants have included Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious, Leonard Cohen, and Arthur Mil-ler) leads him to override the epigrammatic dialogue as a mere outline. He lavishes his affection on the look, yet can’t shape these various loudly colorful characters into a community. While Hawke is off stringing NYC special-effects shots like a booklet of postcards, the players at his command deteriorate into bores, rather than the cool souls he tenderly imagines them to be. The ethos of the Chelsea Hotel may shape Hawke’s artistic aspirations, but he hasn’t yet coordinated his own DV poetry with the Beat he hears in his soul.