San Francisco music video auteur Justin Kelly makes the move into movies
Maybe now that Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul has won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, the art film world can be forgiven, but many of my favorite movies of the past few years have been made for Vimeo or YouTube more than for DVD rental, let alone the big screen. I'm thinking of Damon Packard's SpaceDisco One, and most of all, I'm talking about music videos shot right here in San Francisco: Skye Thorstenson's fantasia for Myles Cooper's "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today," and Justin Kelly's numerous videos for Hunx and His Punx. Where else are you going to find a world of arcane rituals, giant boomboxes, bigger phones, and mustard-and-syrup food orgies, populated by a cast of personalities that might make John Waters pine for his youth and Andy Warhol rise from the grave?
On a sunny Saturday, Kelly picks me up in his 1980 Mercedes and — amid talk of rabid crowds stripping Hunx naked at show in Paris — drives me to his shared warehouse at the very point of Hunters Point. His look is a less corn fed All the Right Moves-era Tom Cruise. When we reach the place where the magic happens, there's a basketball net in the main room, along with an assortment of six-foot fluorescent pointy plastic plant life. Kelly's friend and longtime collaborator Brande Baugh mixes up some Campari and orange juice, enthusing about Campari ads in Europe featuring "slutty full-on animals with big tits wearing bikinis." It's time to talk movies.
Kelly and Baugh have been friends since they were 14. They could have walked right off the pages off Francesca Lia Block's great SoCal young adult novel Weetzie Bat. "We were geniuses in our own mind," says Baugh. "I'd dress like a drag queen every day at school. I had no eyebrows — I'd draw them on. Our history started because we both had these crazy urges. We'd go to the mall and take pictures of each other being dead on the floor."
"Brande would go to punk shows," says Kelly, "and I was just looking for any event where I could dress up and be expressive, from Rocky Horror to raves. She took me to my first gay pride [parade]." Moving away from home at 18, Kelly checked out the fringes of movieland, playing a nerd with acne in Ghost World (2001) and working as a set PA on Almost Famous (2000). He lived on Hollywood Boulevard, then he and Baugh each got their own studios at a place called Sunshine City Apartments. "On Hollywood Boulevard, we'd have these weird Elvis impersonators around us," Baugh remembers. "It was fun to poke fun of that and rehearse our camp."
But San Francisco is where Kelly and Baugh have made their creative home. Back in 2005, when I profiled Kelly's early music video efforts, he'd made less than a handful of clips, but already had a very precisely honed vision, formed from close scrutiny of — and enthusiasm for — '80s-era MTV in particular. In the past few years, this vision, combined with the music of talented friends such as Alexis Penney and Seth Bogart of Hunx and His Punx, has flowered into something uniquely energetic, hot, and vividly colorful. Kelly's videos are stylish yet lively. The clip for Hunx and His Punx' "Cruising," for example, is an almost DePalma- or Hitchcock- or Ophuls-type feat of tracking shot trickery, a faux-one shot 360-degree dance through a variety of horny and sweaty tableaux that revives William Friedkin's Cruising (1980) in a celebratory rather than bloodthirsty way.