“The whole doc should be me yelling at you, because that’s all I really wanna do,” the painter Chuck Connelly tells documentary maker Benjamin Schwartz at the start of Schwartz’s “Chuck Connelly Into the Light,” which will stream as part of the summer edition of the New Jersey International Film Festival, June 12 (visit njfilmfest.com)
Connelly, as shown in this encounter, doesn’t just seem like an irascible artist. He seems like someone in a dangerous mental place, on the verge of being consumed by his anger. I felt uncomfortable just watching it.
I thought to myself, can I really watch a 75-minute film about this guy? And do I want to?
As it turned out, yes I could, and yes I did. I ended up loving “Into the Light,” in which Schwartz patiently draws Connelly out of his shell and creates a compelling portrait of a troubled but extremely talented guy, who happens to be a pussycat if you can get past his defense mechanisms. I recommend this film highly.
A little background: Connelly is not exactly an unknown figure. In the ’80s, he had a lot of success in the New York art scene. He has paintings in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum or Art, the Brooklyn Museum and other august institutions. Nick Nolte’s character in “Life Lessons” — the Martin Scorsese-directed segment of the 1989 film anthology “New York Stories” — is partially based on him, his hands are seen painting in that film, and his paintings are used to show the work of the Nolte character.
A 2008 documentary, “The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale” (directed by Jeff Stimmel, not Schwartz) already explored his anger, his alcoholism, his disillusionment from the art world and the art world’s disillusionment from him, and was shown on HBO.
But “Into the Light” captures him older, wiser and now sober, still an outsider in the art world but ferociously dedicated to craft. He paints every day in his North Philadelphia home and stores many of the paintings — which now number in the thousands — there. Schwartz includes a montage of Connelly’s paintings in his film — a few seconds on one, and then the next one, and so on — and it’s astonishing.
Connelly rarely leaves his home. It is explained that he is agoraphobic, not antisocial. He actually likes when people visit, though he often ends up yelling at them.
Part of Schwartz’s strategy for making this film is to coax Connelly outside (thus the title, “Into the Light”). They set up a show of Connelly’s work in his backyard, but Connelly chickens out and only invites one person, a trusted neighbor. More successful are trips to paint landscapes, outside, and another small show, set up in an office building, to celebrate the purchase and display of a favorite, decades-old work. Connelly is also shown delighting in an opportunity to offer some instruction to a fellow artist, and do some painting with her.
That scene with the yelling, at the start of the movie, showed Connelly at his worst. I’m not sure of the chronology of the scenes Schwartz filmed, but he structures the documentary so that Connelly seems more reasonable and less tortured as the film goes on. So it’s ultimately — and quite surprisingly, given its start — kind of uplifting. As well as, simply, a good opportunity to see a great artist at work, and discussing his craft.
For more on this film and other NJ Film Festival offerings, visit njfilmfest.com. For more on “Chuck Connelly Into the Light,” visit chuckconnellyintothelight.com.
Here is the trailer:
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