I made my way through the city at night to the Hotel Chelsea, that inn of legend where so many writers, musicians, and maniacs of all disciplines made their mark. If New York was the 20th century’s creative center, the Hotel Chelsea was it’s white hot core. Mark Twain, Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clark, Roy Lichtenstein, Allan Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, William Burroughs, Hendrix, Joplin, Warhol. They say Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death there in ’78.
[Stanley Bard inside the Hotel Chelsea, from Sam Bassett’s “Stanley Bard]
I’d never been there before, only walked by. I expected a lot of whitewash, or worse, the trendy douche takeover phenomenon when I arrived for a clandestine screening of “Stanley Bard,” a documentary about the Hotel’s beloved 50+ year manager/owner who has been semi-ousted by an absentee board of directors. Amazingly, there was no visible scheme by management to capitalize on the Hotel’s historical hip factor and I was pleasantly surprised to find the whole place covered in a weird, jumbled, art strewn patina.
I followed my cryptic instructions to the director, Sam Bassett’s studio (he lives in the Hotel) and atop a staircase adorned with tape sculptures and old mobiles, found the roof door I was looking for. It had two signs on it, one stating that I could not enter, and one hand-scrawled stating that I could. Next to that, an alarm system blinked at me, somewhat alarmingly. Wind howled through the old skylights above. I was sure that my next action would either result in tripping a horrifying alarm, ruining a film screening or that I’d get stabbed. Happily, before either could transpire, the door opened and friendly faces directed me out onto what must be one of the greatest roofs in the city, a gallery of cozy nooks, and wide wild vistas.
Bassett’s studio is housed on the roof within a kind of pyramidal tower. His photos greet you in an entrance that gives way to a large workspace with a view over 23rd street. Banks of flat panel monitors perch on a long work table and lighting equipment obscure an old fireplace which I just had to touch and consequently wielded one black smudged hand for the rest of the night. A flight of stairs leads up into the high ceilinged interior of the pyramid and Bassett’s bedroom/screening room. A bunch of writers and assorted characters were there. Stanley Bard himself came and sat on a couch for the premiere of what is essentially a memoir of his time at the Chelsea. He’s not just a guy who ran the place for half a century. In fact, the film seems to assert through a bizarre metaphor with the old parquet flooring in Bassett’s brilliant space and Bard’s own memories, that he is the Hotel Chelsea. At least it is his spirit and good nature that made it what it is, this angel of the arts who often did not demand rent from struggling artists. I doubt any board of directors would consider such a method for running the hotel.
The score is fantastic, and full blown for such a small intimate doc. I was surprised when Bassett told me it was composed by Michael Nyman (“The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover,” “The Piano,” “The Libertine”), but then the roster of artists associated with each other because of Stanley Bard and his wonderful hotel is no mystery, it would come naturally in such an environment – still alive and well.
“History is shaped by very few people,” Bard said after the film ended. He was speaking of all the greats who’ve shaped culture and the arts, come and gone from the Chelsea, but It’s clear he’s been one of them too.
“Stanley Bard” will make its New York City film festival debut at the Royal Flush Festival on Sunday, Oct. 18 at 6:30pm at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10003.
Watch the trailer here.
FYI I’ll be on the Royal Flush Festival’s “Blog This Panel” tomorrow, at 4pm at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural & Educational Center’s Milagro Theater, 107 Suffolk Street.