BOY, the first film (2009) by musician-artist Cody Critcheloe, is a haunting and humorous gay coming-of-age story featuring music videos by the artist’s band, SSION (pronounced “shun”), which he founded when in high school and continued at the Kansas City Art Institute (where he graduated in 2003), and which is still active. Critcheloe made the videos between 2007 and ’09, intending that they would be incorporated into a film. The videos are linked by segments of dialogue, mockumentary interviews and tour footage. The hour-long film was shown in a gallery whose furniture, walls and floor featured the artist’s bold graphic designs, familiar from works on paper he has also exhibited.
SSION has toured the country and released four CDs, including, in 2008, Fools Gold, the source of the songs in BOY. Layered with myths, archetypes, stereotypes and arch borrowings from pop culture, the semi-autobiographical production is fired by rebellion against social norms that stifle creativity and marginalize gays.
Critcheloe plays an aspiring rock star—svelte, androgynous, laconic, yet vulnerable—whose popularity has been eclipsed by a female rival, “The Woman”—the enigma at the center of this film. With her large black-rimmed glasses, she’s bookishly attractive, but she also emanates power and aggression. “I’m vicariously living through her,” Critcheloe said in a recent interview. She first appears as a childhood friend in one of several segments enlivened by colorful animation. In a later scene, Critcheloe takes revenge on his carping mother, played by a male actor in drag, for a childhood filled with misunderstanding and repression. He dyes her hair blonde to the reproachful song “Ah Ma”: “I only walk like a fag cuz of all of my blisters,” he snarls.
Beyond its obvious elements of satire and critique, BOY perfectly encapsulates the tribal, do-it-together mentality of Critcheloe’s generation. The film draws on the talents of dozens of his friends, including up-and-coming designers Peggy Noland and Ari Fish and musician Ashley Miller. The music, which ranges from catchy, Eurodisco-style tunes to rebel anthems, keeps the narrative moving. In a segment shot outdoors, the band delivers a feedback-filled rendition of “Day Job,” a hard-driving lament about boring and meaningless kinds of work. Young men in loincloths perform a ritualistic male dance around a campfire to “A Wolves Eye,” a moody meditation on masculinity in which Critcheloe confesses, “It feels tough. I think I’ve had enough.”
Loneliness and erotic longing pulse through an orgy scene enacted to the song “Street Jizz,” as well as a club segment in which Critcheloe performs to adoring fans and is then evicted. Following a visit to a drag queen “Psy-chic,” he enjoys another brief moment of celebrity before it is snatched away by The Woman, who has put together her own band. She dominates the film’s end, a phantasmagorical spectacle that is part Busby Berkeley and part Wizard of Oz. “It’s hard to find your way when there’s all this stuff in your way,” Critcheloe remarks midway through the film. At the end, he is tearful, but defers to the power ofâ?¯The Woman, leaving an open question: Is she real or a figment—the embodiment, perhaps, of his female alter ego?
Photo: Cody Critcheloe: BOY, 2009, film, 60 minutes; at Grand Arts.