The film opens with the a shot of the roof of the Chelsea, tracking into Sam’s studio—for better or worse he has stripped all traces of Norman Gosney’s decadent boudoir décor from the space--juxtaposed with a shot of Bettina sitting in her familiar place outside her room. To the accompaniment of eerily mystical drumming, we see various haunting shots of Bettina: picking up leaves by the railroad trestle, riding the ferry past the Statue of Liberty, and reading her poetry on a moving walkway. What’s the story behind this tiny, unobtrusive elderly lady, slowly pushing her cart down the chaotic streets as the unseeing juggernaut of New York rushes madly by her? Does she even have one?
Indeed she does. The film, titled simply “Bettina” is a story mostly about the enigmatic Bettina, but about the tall, bearded filmmaker Sam Bassett as well: it chronicles several months in their lives as each seeks the aid of the other in restoring a sort of rhyme and reason to a life and a corner of the city that has fallen seriously out of kilter. Sam sets out to restore Bettina to her proper place in the world—the art world that has neglected her genius, and the world of the present day that seems to have moved on and left her behind. Bettina’s struggle is spiritual and almost cosmological in scope: through her art she seeks to reveal the Noumenon, or the invisible secret essence of things, and thus to lead the people of this world out of confusion into order. (Bettina would no doubt like me to mention, for the record, that poet Ira Cohen knows nothing of this.) For both individuals, who bond in the intuitive understanding of this arcane ideal, the quest resolves itself into the more mundane physical goal of cleaning-up and setting Bettina’s cluttered apartment/studio aright so she can display her art and re-establish her Noumenonological Institute.
It’s not easy. It takes Sam awhile to earn Bettina’s trust and to gain admission into the inner sanctum of her studio; and Bettina, for her part, can’t quite see how rearranging all her boxes and putting her papers into storage is actually going to help achieve order. It seems to her that her the boxes and stacks of papers piled to the ceiling are already where they should be and now Sam is simply messing them up. “I may never be able to have the same order again,” she says. But Bettina is convinced by the end result: Sam builds shelves and hangs her paintings, and together they transform the large space into a museum showcasing Bettina’s huge and varied body of sculpture, drawings, and photography.
Highlights of the film include: the death-defying Sam riding his skateboard down the middle of 23rd street pushing a shopping cart loaded with supplies, Sam and Bettina filming each other across 6th Avenue as a Marathon race takes place on the street between them, and the highly comical footage of Sam lifting Bettina in his arms and running her up a hill at Storm King Japanese Sculpture Garden.
As we battle the money-grubbing minority shareholders who ousted Stanley and seized control of our beloved Chelsea, it’s rewarding to step back for a moment and consider exactly what it is we’re fighting for—the hidden essence or Noumenon at the core of the Chelsea Hotel. And if that essence doesn’t involve Bettina and the dozens of others misunderstood artists like her hiding away here at the hotel, then I don’t know what else it could involve. At the time of the film’s events Bettina was being subjected to court hearings in which the minority shareholders and their hired guns at BD were seeking to evict her for clutter. Well, thanks to Sam—who through his work has revealed a small part of the order underlying what some may dismiss as anarchy—these sociopathic pirates now have absolutely no hope of implementing their unconscionable plan.-- Ed Hamilton