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.
Lensed by frequent director of photography David Kavanaugh, Kelly's recent video for Harlem's "Gay Human Bones" is another step forward, with a superb central performance by Baugh, who stares down the camera with silent movie star hypnotism, and a memorable bespectacled cameo by Scout Festa, one of the stars of Cary Cronenwett's sailor epic Maggots and Men (2009). ("We call her 'One Take Festa,'" Baugh says.) Here, the attention to detail that Kelly brings to movement and editing (an area where Baugh often chimes in) takes on a ritualistic aura. Both "Gay Human Bones" and "Cruising" possess choreographic grace.
This doesn't mean Kelly is veering away from direct imagery. His clip for Nick Weiss's RIP NRG remix of Hunx and His Punx' "Dontcha Want Me Back" discovers new vivid hues while reveling in the tastiness and grodiness of food. An upcoming clip for Alexis' home run of a debut single "Lonely Sea" (produced by Weiss) captures the formidable Penney in full-on Janet Jackson or Madonna-level diva mode, storming into the ocean. Except in this case the setting was a freezing Ocean Beach, where Penney had to yell to himself that he was "Alexis, Queen of Sex!" in between freezing-cold and even hail-ridden shots. "He was shaking so hard," Kelly says. "I freaked out and thought, 'Oh my god, he's going to die and I'm going to jail!'"
While music video is where Kelly has been thriving, the feature film world is where he's been learning, from his early Hollywood and Indiewood experiences on through to a gig as editorial assistant on Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008). This summer, he's traveling to Oregon to work on a feature by director M. Blash that stars Chloë Sevigny and Jena Malone. He's also continuing to work on his feature film debut as director, after shorts such as Front (2007), a cryptic slice of queer youth which starred Daeg Faerch before Rob Zombie cast him as the young Michael Meyers in his 2007 remake of Halloween. As for that project, mum's the word right now, but know one thing: a lot of people in this town will be talking about it.