“Where’s your garbage?” Vincent D’Onofrio inquires of Uma Thurman at one point during her husband Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, an episodic, hallucinatory piece about some denizens of New York’s faded but legendary Chelsea Hotel. She points to a cabinet under the sink, but an exhausted viewer may well feel that the proper answer is: “On the screen.” “Chelsea Walls” is a dreay, incoherent, self-indulgent mess of a movie in which a bunch of pompous windbags drone on inanely for two hours; and Hawke, working in the gritty digital video format, uses every cheap trick in the book to give it a jagged, moody veneer that some may confuse with art. The film is labeled “An InDigEnt Production,” which stands for “Independent Digital Entertainment.” One can accurately observe that it achieves only the first two of those elements.
Presumably the picture is meant to serve as an impressionist, poetic paean to the artistic sensibility that suffuses the halls of the building that once housed the likes of Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but the group of preening wannabes created by Hawke and writer Nicole Burdette are certainly pale shadows of their illustrious predecessors. They include Thurman as a would-be poet and D’Onofrio as a painter, as well as a booze-addled novelist (Kris Kristofferson) with both a wife (Tuesday Weld) and a mistress (Natasha Richardson), another aspiring writer (Rosario Dawson) whose boyish lover (Mark Webber) allows himself to be drawn away by an obviously trouble-prone buddy (Kevin Corrigan), and a Minnesota singer-guitarist (Robert Sean Leonard) who arrives in town in the company of his addled buddy (Steve Zahn). Other figures float in and out of the piece–an oh-so-angsty nightclub MC (Frank Whaley) and a singer (Jimmy Scott) among them, along withutterly unidentified people who briefly (and pointlessly) show up–but they get lost in the shuffle.
There’s a plot of sorts at work here: things open with shots of a couple of NYC cops cordoning off a hallway to investigate a death in one of the rooms, and at the close the identity of the victim is revealed, but by the time the disclosure occurs, you’re likely to wish that the suicide was of the mass variety. (Or perhaps you’ll feel like putting a pistol to your own head.) But mostly the picture is just a series of lame, fragmentary episodes in which excessively garrulous people chatter on obsessively about themselves while Hawke frames them in a variety of arty poses and indulges in whatever sub-film-school devices he can contrive from instant to instant. On very rare occasions–when Kristofferson recalls a recent encounter with a small girl in the elevator, for example–a brief touch of insight strikes. For the most part, however, things are pretty grim. When Leonard croons, at inordinate length, one of his own compositions, you’re likely to search in the seat near to you for some rotten fruit to toss in the direction of the screen. When Dawson uses her charms on Webber in a futile attempt to get him to resist Corrigan’s blandishments, you’ll probably be totally in the dark about what the various motivations are. And when a cantankerous older dude shows up simply to rant over now-gone guests he remembers from the hotel, or to declaim a few lines of verse in a stentorian voice, the only effect will be to rouse you unhappily from well-deserved slumber in an equally foul mood.
You can understand why Thurman and Leonard allowed themselves to get sucked into Hawke’s vanity project–they’re a close trio, after all; but there must be some lost wager behind the participation of the rest of the cast. Technically the picture looks every inch the amateur effort, lacking the slightest visual beauty or interest–sort of like a Dogma picture without the introductory screed. Ultimately what echoes through “Chelsea Walls” is just a cacophony of pretentious, meaningless prattle. You’d be wise to stay well out of earshot.