Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: Boy by Ssion

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2009 at 11:53 AM

I became a fan of the Ssion between the cowsuits and the stripped-down punk. Prior the 2005 World's Worth 7-inch, the band (which began ten years ago in the mind and in the crotch of lead singer and auteur Cody Critcheloe, then in high school in his native Kentucky) had dressed in animal costumes and performed its songs karaoke-style in front of projections.

click to enlarge Nicole Reinertson
  • Nicole Reinertson

With the that single, Critcheloe threw out the udders and brought in guitars. "I don't know why anyone who creates anything would want to stick with the same format over and over again," he told The Pitch at the time.

It wouldn't last long. Though the live-rock combo bounced along well enough over primitive, punky funk grooves, it would prove to be a pupal stage for the next and thus far most fully realized version of Ssion: the deliriously catchy, unashamedly gay Fool's Gold.

The performance art side of Ssion quickly exploded back to the fore, but before we get into that, it's important to note that as an album, Fool's Gold is superb. Working with local art-scene mystic and musical prodigy J. Ashley Miller, Critcheloe crafted ten tracks of awesomely sleazy disco trash pop. "It started out as us making a gay record," Critcheloe told us. "And then pop trumped gay." Two years on, it still sounds fresh.
click to enlarge moviehouse.jpg

So, that album came out in 2007, and with funding from the local gallery and artist laboratory Grand Arts, Critcheloe began work on the feature length film Boy, which premiered last night at the Tivoli to a rapturously enthusiastic, spilling-over crowd.

Structurally, Boy is nine Ssion videos stitched together with an underexplained plot about a boy's search for his teenage love in the context of rock idolatry. It's an ambiguously autobiographical portrait of Critcheloe, but most of all, it's hella fun to watch.

Beginning, significantly, with an intoning of the word Whatever, it opens with

a closeup on the fully grown Boy, heavily made up, no bristle of his

trademark fu-manchu out of place, talking to an off-camera interviewer

about how he and she (the female character, played by Shannon

Michalski, is identified only as "the Woman") were childhood friends

who "used to get into trouble together." Animation shows the two as fat

teenagers driving around country roads and coming to a school building

that houses the Church of Satan. With a $50 swipe of his mom's debit

card, the boy and girl become members.

The girl begins lusting after

money and power and grows quickly into the Woman, a deranged, Russian-accented,

pseudo-Fascist businesswoman. Meanwhile, after breaking free of his tyrannical Ma (played by an all-in Chadwick Brooks) the Boy stumbles through a technicolor fantasia of underground gay clubs, leather-clad punk bands, fireside rituals, brushes with debased celebrities and so forth to emerge as a Prince-like cult phenom. The Woman returns and, essentially, becomes Ike to the Boy's Tina. At least, that's my interpretation. (For the academic analysis, go to GrandArts.com and click on Projects: Current.)

The pleasure of watching Boy, however, owes little to the narrative. All the music videos that comprise the bulk of the film have been released on YouTube; if you've been following this blog the past year-plus, you've probably seen most of them -- if not, voila. And what videos: patently bizarre, youthfully sleazy, totally gay and visually striking. Ssion creates its own iconography: the blacked-out, eyebrow-nose-mustache facepaint; triangles and pyramids and eyes ripped from U.S. currency; gender-deconstructing costumes by Peggy Noland and Ari Fish; cartoon mouths and eyes over private parts; Critcheloe's sad eyes and raffish grin blown up huge, as if it could fill every corner of your gaze.

It would be a symbolic clusterfuck and/or inaccessible mishmash of artsy psychedelia if not for the fact that humor -- usually in the form of undercutting, sarcastic jokes -- jumped out at every turn. Case in point: I and the older, bearded, Mr. Natural-type-dude I was sitting next to about lost our shit when, in the middle of the freaky campfire dance in "A Wolves Eye," the Woman appeared on screen and stuffed a molten 'Smore in her mouth. Many of the jokes are feminist, too: in "Bullshit," a zaftig Madonna pulls out her tampon mid-performance and hurls it like a stick of dynamite at a guy in the crowd who mouths the words fuck you at her; in one of the plot interlude scenes, the Boy tries to persuade a fortune-telling drag queen (DeDe Deville) to trade him a cigarette for his broken guitar, claiming that it's been played by a lot of famous people: "Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin ... Susan Sarandon."



I'd seen most of the music videos before, but only in five-inch-wide, grainy YouTube window. Seeing them on the big screen, I didn't want to look away for a second. I know that sounds cliche, but there was at least one moment where I did look down at my notepad for a second and missed some sight gag that caused the room to fill with laughter, as it did many times last night. Appropriately, after the film ended to a partial standing ovation, there was a line for the men's room.

Boy is a romp. You want killer beats and catchy hooks? It's got killer beats and catchy hooks. You want artistic, conceptual shitz? It's got all the artistic, conceptual shitz you need, bro. When people in other cities see this film (beginning with a screening next month at the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago next month), hopefully it'll shake some of the crust off of people's perception of Kansas City as a thoroughly straight, barbecue eating town. But, as the Ssaying goes: Whatever.    

If you missed it last night, Boy will be showing continuously Thursday through Saturday at Grand Arts through October 24. Tonight at the gallery from 6 to 9 p.m., there's a reception featuring a performance (around 7, I am told) by the Ssion cover band Noiss plus an exhibition of Ssion-related drawings and photos. Then, on Saturday at 2 p.m., Critcheloe will give a gallery talk about the making and inspiration and whatnot of Boy

And by the way, Ssion is an actual band. Ssion recently toured with Fischerspooner (who, by many accounts, got upstaged) and have had songs remixed by Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Glass Candy, Murderbot and others. Barring the film becoming hailed as a landmark piece of American art-house cinema, Boy, I expect, will fall into place as solid achievement in what's sure to be a long, illustrious career, emphasis on the lust.  

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