Wednesday, April 24, 2019


by Erika Bromley and Patrick Bromley
C is for “Can we watch all of our movies that start with C?”

Patrick: Bue! We were away from “Shelf Life” for a few weeks while we took a trip to New York (it’s like another character in this column), but we’re back now and ready to watch some of the unwatched titles in our collection that start with the letter C. You’re up first. What did you pick?

Erika: My first thought while browsing our shelves was that I had less catching up to do in our C shelves, but I still found a big handful of discs to choose from. Not surprisingly, Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls (2001) stood out the most because NEW YORK! And Ethan Hawke! Rosario Dawson! And THE CHELSEA HOTEL. And I recently started reading Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel by Nicolaia Rips. And we just visited Chelsea over spring break! I’ve always loved New York from afar, and our first trip there was proof that it’s a beautiful city of everything and everyone. Also, pizza. When are we going back?

Patrick: New York was awesome. I’ll look up flights.
Erika: Chelsea Walls was on my radar YEARS ago, right after the indie boom but before superhero movies took over. (Is there an official name for that era?) (Era.) I had pretty much forgotten about it though, and I forgot we even owned it. Hawke shot the film in digital, and if I am not mistaken, it was one of the first…

Patrick: It was certainly an early digital movie, as evidenced by how bad it now looks. I’m sure it doesn’t help that we were watching a standard def DVD transfer circa 2001, but the movie looked like a giant Vaseline smear most of the time.

Erika: We meet a variety of artists living in the hotel -- some just starting their lives and some trying to battle the demons of their past. Some are content to live there forever while some seem to be desperately waiting for a star to fall or for anything to rescue them and move them to the next stage of their lives. The stories are not all directly connected, and the film plays almost like studying a hazy, dreamy collage: some pieces go together uniformly while others stand out -- or don’t seem to belong there at all. I think the movie tries to romanticize the “Starving Artist” a bit, especially when cuts or transitions are ultra-stylized with jazz music, erratic editing, and muted colors. Or maybe the characters are romanticizing their own pursuits without any help from the camera. Maybe they just are who they are, and we have to determine whether or not we are willing to go along with them in their purely artistic pursuits. I think this film is supposed to take place over the course of one day, but I felt like we were watching these characters for months -- and I don’t mean that in the best of ways. Am I wrong about that?

Patrick: No, I think you’re right. It’s a pretty compressed time frame that feels like an eternity. I’ll be honest: I had almost no patience for this movie. It feels like exactly the kind of thing Ethan Hawke would have directed at this point in his career, when he was super pretentious and publishing his books of poetry and being a little bit of a douche. I think he’s outgrown that phase over the last decade, which is good because I really like Ethan Hawke now. I won’t call it a failure because I’m sure Chelsea Walls is the movie he was trying to make, but I found the movie he was trying to make pretty insufferable.
Erika: I love, love, love Ethan Hawke. But I totally get what you are saying. On paper, this is a movie that should work for me. Artists, love, New York, 2001-era (era) Jeff Tweedy… The cast is great overall. I think this was Tuesday Weld’s last movie? And it was so bittersweet seeing the gorgeous, elegant Natasha Richardson. Rosario Dawson was a huge draw for me; I will see anything she’s in (we recently watched Sidewalks of New York because it was starting on cable as we were waking up the morning after we’d just gotten back from our trip, and I was reminded again of how great she is). I automatically root for any young couple in love (or in lust, or infatuation), because once you know what the feeling of falling in love is like, you want everyone to experience it. Or truthfully, I have always been a romantic at heart. But I found myself disturbed by the young artists-in-love dynamic in this film. This may have a lot to do with how much I like Rosario Dawson and/or how little empathy I was able to feel for Mark Webber’s character, Val, which is problematic for a me, a person who can feel empathy even for people I don’t particularly like or respect in real life. (I can’t turn off the empathy no matter what. This gets me in trouble sometimes.) I felt for some of the older characters at times too, but really, this movie left me feeling…ready to watch something else.

Did you like anything about it (other than Rosario Dawson, of course)?

Patrick: Am I an asshole if I say no? This just isn’t a movie for me. I like a lot of the actors involved, but I can’t even give them credit for their performances because I don’t feel like they have characters to play, just nonsense to babble.

Erika: YES.
Patrick: I didn’t know Robert Sean Leonard sang and played guitar and he does that well, so I guess that’s a positive? This feels like a movie we would have driven downtown to see at the Landmark Century in the early 2000s and I would have regretted it almost immediately because there’s just nothing here for me to grab on to. I couldn’t even have done that thing where I convinced myself I liked it just because we had made such an effort or because I was younger and stupider and thought there were certain kinds of movies I “should” like. Chelsea Walls would have left me cold at any point in my life.

Erika: As much as we are movie-lovers, sometimes a film just doesn’t work. You picked Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys this week. Westerns don’t always “excite” me even though I often really enjoy them. It’s probably the only genre I don’t gravitate towards regularly. Rydell’s film captivated me from the start though, and I really, really loved it. Thank you for choosing this!

Patrick: I heard it talked about on a recent episode of “Pure Cinema” because it’s screening at the New Beverly this month, and it reminded me that we’ve owned it for years but haven’t watched it. We got it way back in the early days of Blu-ray, when Warner Bros. had a program where you could send in any old DVD and trade it in for a new Blu. Because we had a bunch of stand-up DVDs from one of my old writing jobs, we had a lot of DVDs to send in and got a lot of Blu-rays that way. Memories.

Patrick: Of all the new-to-me movies we’ve watched for “Shelf Life” so far, I think The Cowboys is my favorite. It snuck up on me a little bit: I was immediately drawn to the sweeping western landscape photography and John Williams’ score, but felt for a little while like it was just going to be a movie about John Wayne being a miserable, grouchy prick (so, you know, a documentary). By the time the intermission hit, though, I realized just how invested I was in the story of Wayne, playing Wil Anderson, leading a group of young boys on a cattle drive across the west. Throw in a great Bruce Dern villain performance and you’ve got one of my favorite discoveries of the year so far.

I was excited that you liked it so much, too.

Erika: Agreed about the intermission. I didn’t want one! And props to you for recognizing actor A. Martinez immediately. You grew up with in a soap opera-watching family (as did I), and I love that you still have that knowledge in the back of your memory. All the performances in The Cowboys are strong, but I found myself drawn to Roscoe Lee Browne as Jebediah Nightlinger. His performance was refined and captivating; I was drawn to everything he said. The script certainly plays a part, as his character had some of my favorite lines in the film. But I felt that his presence alone lifted the movie, like Broadway infiltrated the western landscape (and only later, when googling to make sure I was spelling his name correctly, did I realize he indeed had performed on Broadway). I knew Browne from his TV work more than any of his films, so now I want to host a Roscoe Lee Browne movie marathon. You in?

Patrick: I’m always in for a marathon. I knew him best as one of Cliff Huxtable’s friends on The Cosby Show, but that’s a series we won’t be watching again so we’ll have to get our RLB fix in other ways.

Erika: He played that character on A Different World, too!
I also found myself intrigued by what seemed to be some subtle and not-to-subtle (the schoolhouse teacher responds to Wayne’s character’s request to speak to only male students with, “Then we bow to the fact that it’s a man’s world and leave you to it!”) markers of progressivism in the film. I don’t think of older westerns as being progressive, but again, I admit that my depth of knowledge in this genre is limited. This film came out in 1972, so we are post-Civil Rights Movement, and that might contribute to some of it.

Honest truth: I was thinking to myself, “This is the first western I’ve seen in a LONG time that hasn’t featured a scene in a brothel” when, wouldn’t you know it, a traveling brothel wagon (this is a thing) appeared in the next shot. But even this felt progressive (after I first sighed and said, “A man wrote this script for sure”): the women have a business and know how to use it to gain independence, security, and a future for themselves. The woman who runs the brothel is confident and assured and knows the game. When one young man compares her to his mother because of her age, she scolds him for not having manners and seems clearly upset. But it rolls off her back when Nightlinger rides up and starts to speak to her with reverence and respect, which she clearly expects for herself. Most film portrayals of the brothel owner do show her to be strong and serious about her profession and employees, and I found this, albeit brief, scene to perfectly encapsulate this motif.

Between the quick lines referring to the age of the brothel manager and the longer dialogue between Wayne and Browne regarding “getting old,” I felt that John Wayne made this film knowing it might be one of his last. So much of it seems like a metaphor for an aging actor no longer offered the screen opportunities of the past - but who maybe can take some positivity out of mentoring the next actors “coming up” (the boys he reluctantly takes on the run end up being “his children”)? Though I don’t know that John Wayne lived that in real life; I guess I just like watching it with that buoyant idea in mind. There’s also a sad moment in the film when we learn that he lost his own son to an early death, which made me think back to the last scene between Anderson and his wife. He seems to so genuinely love her, and it becomes apparent that their relationship has withstood some difficult times. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I found myself thinking back to their goodbye more than once, and, again, it is a brief conversation that seems to work perfectly at reinforcing some of the overall themes. Time marches on...
Patrick: I think you’re absolutely right about John Wayne realizing he was nearing the end of his career and how this movie speaks to that. You could read the movie as him passing the torch to a new generation of western star, but I don’t think The Cowboys is quite so simplistic about this stuff. If nothing else, I didn’t get the impression that any of the young actors were being positioned as western stars -- or even movie stars, for that matter. The golden age of the western was already over by the time this movie came along, so no one was really looking forward to what was “next.” But I like that these themes are present, because I can watch the movie as a treatise on aging and fading away, but I can also enjoy it as a really exciting, really well-told story -- the kind of old-fashioned entertainment that’s missing from most of the modern movie landscape. This was a great discovery and I’m glad it’s part of our collection, as I can easily see us coming back to it. Thanks for watching it with me.

Any thoughts on your ‘D’ movie?

Erika: No spoilers, baby. But let’s just say there are a few Italian horror discs in our ‘D’ section calling my name...


  1. My love of Ethan Hawke is well documented but I agree with you both about Chelsea Walls. I unfortunately found that movie insufferable. Patrick's totally right that it came at a time where Hawke was just indulging his worst tendencies. Something he doesn't seem to do anymore, which is why I've loved so much of his work over the last 10 years