In 1973, Chuck Connelly -- tall and handsome, driven and fantastically talented -- left working-class Pittsburgh for the Tyler School of Art. In the '80s, as a Manhattan contemporary of Basquiat and Schnabel, the Pleasant Hills native sold his astonishing neo-expressionist paintings to the tune of more than $1 million.
As filmmaker Jeff Stimmel captures him today, Connelly (now living in Philadelphia) is likely sitting on a fortune -- perhaps 2,000 of his riotously colorful canvases. But he's broke and hasn't had a major show in a decade. In this new hour-long HBO documentary, Stimmel unflinchingly shows why. Connelly, a proud alcoholic who rages at his wife, the camera and anything else in his way, has unmade a career by loudly alienating dealers and patrons (including Martin Scorsese, whose contribution to the 1989 film New York Stories Connelly inspired).
Stimmel, a Mount Lebanon native and Pitt grad, spent six years shooting this film, during which time Connelly's long-suffering wife splits and Connelly -- in a desperate but rather entertaining move -- hires an actor to pose as his fictional alter ego ("Fred Scaboda") to sell his work.
While the imposture tanks, the documentary is really something to see. "I'd rather use up my talent than make cash," boasts Connelly; and indeed, Stimmel at least suggests the appeal of the rebel-visionary pose in a world where exploitation of artists is standard operating procedure. Stimmel's tactics include the inventive use of a split screen; meanwhile, gambits like joining Connelly at the Pittsburgh graves of both his parents and Andy Warhol help demonstrate why, as one observer puts its, this artist is "his own worst enemy."
The Art of Failure debuts on HBO at 9 p.m. Mon., July 7. Also screens July 8, 10 and 16, with additional screenings on HBO2.