Last summer, sometime during the five weeks he spent stringing Swedish moss on a 950-square-foot expanse of chicken wire for Olafur Eliasson's Moss Wall at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chris Hefner heard an NPR piece about the legendary last meal of French president Francois Mitterand: a tiny songbird called the ortolan that's force-fed, drowned alive in Armagnac, plucked, seasoned, cooked, and then devoured—bones, innards, and all—by gourmets with napkins draped over their faces.
There are two traditional explanations for the napkin. One is that it captures the aroma of the dish. The other, as the narrator puts it at the beginning of Hefner's debut feature film, The Pink Hotel, is that it hides "the glutton's face from a fierce and terrible God."
"The abject cruelty that illustrates is similar to the point I'm trying to make with the movie," Hefner says, "about people living in an extremely decadent manner, who have to pay."
Shot on black-and-white Super 8, with old-timey stylistic flourishes, The Pink Hotel—which premieres Friday, April 9, at the Music Box—is a sort of surreal fun-house reflection of early MGM talkies like Grand Hotel, the 1932 movie set at a posh Berlin pension. It's wartime. Invited to a New Year's Eve party that never materializes, the jet-setting denizens of the pink hotel munch ortolan and engage in other acts of gross consumption, chase ominous noises down winding corridors, and plot acts of sabotage as the hotel mysteriously disintegrates around them. A superimposed zeppelin model periodically rumbles across the skyline in a brazenly ragged effect.
Hefner takes every opportunity to highlight artifice in his work. Mainstream directors "spend so much energy making the medium invisible," he says. "They don't want to see things coming apart. It reminds them that they're on a path that won't last forever. . . . I work on the opposite end of the spectrum. Everything looks fake. You see the medium readily. The image jumps, it's high-grain, the exposure is harsh. There's this understanding that this is an object, like you and me. It's got a life span. It won't be around forever."
The pink hotel in The Pink Hotel is inspired by the Edgewater Beach Apartments at 5555 N. Sheridan. Hefner, now 26, has been fascinated with this lakeside art deco icon since he came to Chicago to study film at Columbia College in 2002. It's the last remnant of the once-sprawling Edgewater Beach Hotel complex, built in 1916 and for years a luxury destination, hosting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Franklin Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe. Its star began to wane when Lake Shore Drive was extended north past Foster in 1954, cutting the hotel off from its private beach, where big bands and circuses had performed. The hotel closed in 1967 and was demolished, leaving only the Apartments, which had gone co-op in 1949.
The Edgewater's history sparked the idea for a film about transience and decay. "I started to draw connections between this hotel and the idea of an empire—a society that has this grandiose way of doing things, and those things start to fall apart," Hefner says. "There's this icon that the most important people involved themselves with for decades. How quickly it would disappear."
The Edgewater Beach Apartments condo board turned down Hefner's request to shoot in the building that inspired the movie, but he found a surrogate of similar vintage in Hyde Park's Windermere House, filming its exterior as well as the hallways and elevator of the 12th floor, which was rumored to have been occupied by Muhammad Ali and his entourage in the early 1960s. Hefner also shot at the Reversible Eye, in the MCA warehouse basement, at the Music Box, and at the Willowbrook Ballroom on Archer in Willow Springs, said to be haunted by Chicago's most famous ghost, Resurrection Mary. He biked to the sites, fitting all his production gear in a backpack and saddlebags.
Most of The Pink Hotel's $10,000 budget came from Hefner's own pocket, supplemented by fund-raisers like a shadow puppet show and a performance by Daniel Knox, whose Tin Pan Alley-style ballads are on the movie's soundtrack. Hefner plays musical saw and melodica in Knox's backup band.