Sep 25, 2014

Shredder Orpheus

While Jacques Demy’s Parking (1985) is a rather strange and unfortunately equally kitschy update of Jean Cocteau’s classic Orpheus (1950) aka Orphée, it pales in comparison to the otherworldly new wave-ish dystopian decadence of the obscure little cult item Shredder Orpheus (1990), which is easily the most insanely idiosyncratic cinematic reworking of the ancient Greek myth ever made. Indeed, an innately whimsical work that absolutely personifies the phrase, “guilty pleasure,” the film even makes Patrick Conrad's high-camp mutation of Orpheus, Mascara (1987), which replaces hell with a fancy tranny-run S&M opera house, seem rather restrained by comparison. While advertised as a sort of brother film to classic goofy 1980s skate flicks like Thrashin' (1986) and Gleaming the Cube (1989) and marketed with the totally ‘tubular’ tagline, “They’re shredding their way to Hell!,” Shredder Orpheus is more like Cocteau's Orpheus meets Slava Tsukerman’s Liquid Sky (1982) as directed by someone that is more interested in making a mockery of the New Wave and New Romanticist fashion sense than promoting it as demonstrated by the fact that the heavy-metal-minded protagonist ‘shreds’ on lead guitar and that the villains look like preposterously dressed fashion victims who look like they graduated from the Klaus Nomi and Steve Strange School of Fashion. Written, directed, produced, and starring a then-rather-young Robert McGinley in what would be his directorial debut, this post-apocalyptic sk8 cult flick may not be comparable to what Orson Welles achieved at 26 with his true auteur piece Citizen Kane (1941), but it is certainly what one might describe as a “hidden gem” or “lost cult classic,” as a rather curious and original work that really has no contemporaries.  Released by the VHS-only film production and distribution company Action International Pictures (AIP) that was founded by Anglo-Jewish choreographer turned filmmaker David Winters (who, incidentally, directed Thrashin'), Shredder Orpheus was pretty much guaranteed to be forgotten right from the get go, but luckily a bunch of film nerds that are obsessed with the company that distributed it on videotape have given it new life via the internet. Influenced by everything from films like Cocteau’s Orpheus and Marcel Camus' Black Orpheus (1959) to old school skate and music subcultures to C.G. Jung’s theories on archetypes and featuring a throbbing musical score by an ex-member of the industrial metal group Ministry and half-crazed Hebraic writer, poet, and performance artist Steven Jay "Jesse" Bernstein (who was a comrade of alpha-Beat William S. Burroughs) as a crippled war veteran, belligerent babbling bum, hobo guru, and proletarian philosopher that wheels himself around on a skateboard to get from place to place, Shredder Orpheus is a hysterical hodgepodge of high but mostly low kultur that reminds one how truly aesthetically absurd and fantasy-driven the late-1980s/early-1990s were. Set in a dystopian world where television is literally broadcasted in hell, the film is pure fetishistic fantasy escapism of the rather pleasantly retrograde sort. Indeed, in no other film will you find what could be called, “New Wave Cocteauian Kitsch.” 

 As narrated by a crippled war veteran named ‘Axel’ (Steven Jesse Bernstein)—a fellow who has to rely on a skateboard for mobility because spending three years fighting in Central American jungles left him without the use of his hips and ripped his nervous system to shreds—while rolling around in dystopian Seattle of Shredder Orpheus, five acres of shipping containers have been used to house the proletarian population in an futuristic hellhole that is called ‘The Grey Zone.’  To pass the time, Axel and his much younger sexually deviant shoplifter skate buddies ‘Scratch’ (Linda Severt) and ‘Razoreus’ (Marshall Reid) regularly leave the zone to see their friend Orpheus' band ‘Orpheus and the Shredders’ play. Orpheus Hellenbach (played by writer/director/producer Robert McGinley) has a beautiful fiancée named Eurydice (Megan Murphy) and it looks like they have a bright future together, but when an evil executive from an aesthetically terroristic TV station located in hell called Euthanasia Broadcasting Network (EBN) sees the little lady playing a gig on television with her boy toy at a venue called the ‘Club Trash Bin’ and concludes that she is the “key to the heartbeat of the youth market,” he and his equally deathly pale ‘psychic vampire’ cohorts come up with a conspiratorial plan to kidnap her and make her a perennial slave to the nefarious television network. Indeed, after the couple’s wedding where the groom Orpheus is given a rare Gibson guitar that was co-created by Jimi Hendrix and that was designed to be the “ultimate power-chord machine that would alter and elevate human consciousness,” Eurydice is kidnapped and brought to the infernal EBN TV station. Of course, Orpheus chases after his beloved and enters hell where he is momentarily reunited with his deceased parents who now work as virtual slaves whose job is to shred peoples’ memories, which they do with a mere paper shredder. While his father attempts to shred his memory because otherwise he could subject himself to “100,000 years of word processing” hell for not following orders, Orpheus is saved when his mother intervenes, though it comes at the price of losing his memory of his parents in a symbolic scene reflecting the protagonist's break with his progenitors and maturation to adulthood. 

 After being coerced into performing with his new haze-generating Hendrix guitar on television by a Svengali-like TV producer that looks like he could be the more stocky little brother of Klaus Nomi and terrorizing the discernibly jaded Goth-like hell inhabitants of hell with his killer guitar shredding, Orpheus is told by the rather dapper Dracula-esque dictator of EBN, Hades (Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi) and his more empathetic wife Persephone (Vera McCaughan) that he and Eurydice may leave hell and return to the Grey Zone if he manages to walk back home without looking back at his wife. Of course, the entire thing is a trick to bring up television ratings and while Orpheus does manage to get out of the broadcasted hellhole, his beloved princess Eurydice is trapped there forever as a regularly performing slave of the network, thus causing the protagonist to fall into a deep and dark metaphysical prison of internal infernal misery. While Orpheus and his band become all the more popular as time passes, he “doesn’t give a shit” because his undying love and longing for Eurydice only grows all the more with each passing day. After deciding enough is enough after seeing his wife dance on stage with Hades in a scene that resembles an old German expressionist film, Orpheus opts to go on a Wagnerian quest and skates through a killer parking garage to get to hell to save Eurydice. 

 Unbeknownst to Orpheus, who believes he has been given a gift from the gods, the pernicious producer at EBN has supplied him with a demonic haze-blowing skateboard, as Hades and his comrades want the heroic skate rat to come back to their studios so they can improve their ratings. After literally jumping off the Satanic multi-story parking garage with his skateboard and skating through some infernal tunnels, Orpheus eventually arrives in hell where Hades coerces him into playing the sole contestant on a deadly game show where he must choose between two doors: one containing his death and the other containing his beloved Eurydice. Of course the game is rigged and Orpheus soon finds himself being decapitated by a group of chainsaw-wielding she-bitches who resemble members of Gwar after he ends up choosing the wrong door. In a scene clearly ripped from a scene near the end of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), Orpheus’ decapitated head enters the spotlight of a studio floor and Eurydice picks it up and says goodbye to her beloved in a broadcasted scenario that certainly earns EBN record ratings. After the show, the EBN producer carelessly disposes of Orpheus' head, which ends up in a river and is later found by one of the belated skate-rocker’s young comrades. In the end, the skaters use Orpheus’ skull as a source of meaning in their rather nihilistic lives and regularly perform rituals with it. Indeed, via his skull, Orpheus’ legacy lives on as a sort of timeless skater mythology. 

 While it probably does not say much, Shredder Orpheus is easily the most sophisticated and intricate skater flick ever made as a work that even makes the skate rat favorite Thrashin'—a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet meets a punk take on Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—seem rather conventional by comparison. Unquestionably, one of the most interesting things about McGinley’s flick is its seemingly absurd yet somewhat admirable attempt to create a sort of skater mythology as influenced by the theories of C.G. Jung. Indeed, skulls have always been a part of skateboard culture, with the most popular skate company of the 1980s, Powell Peralta, which had a skate team called ‘The Bones Brigade,’ even using one for their iconic logo. In Shredder Orpheus, the skull becomes a positive image as opposed to the negative as it becomes an archetype for valor, courage, artistic integrity, and general heroism. In that sense, the film certainly brings new meaning to the age old expression: “skate or die.” Speaking of Powell Peralta, McGinley would state in a late 2013 interview regarding his influences for the film: “I already mentioned the Cocteau films, but a key inspiration were the Stacey Peralta and the Bones Brigade videos.” For whatever reason, McGinley would not direct another feature until almost a decade later when he released Jimmy Zip (1999), which is apparently about a young pyromaniac who teams up with a metal sculptor to wage war against both the art world and criminal underworld. While directed and edited in a fairly conventional ‘hack-like’ style, Shredder Orpheus is anything but conventional when it comes to its eccentric themes and imaginary, as a sort of satirical dystopian neo-fairytale of the rather anarchistic yet mythmaking sort. Trashed by the fashion keen punk rock fanboys that assembled the resourceful yet insufferably written book Destroy All Movies!!! The Complete Guide to Punks on Film (2010), McGinley’s poorly neglected should-be-cult-classic is a work that, somewhat paradoxically, will probably be best understood and appreciated by cinephiles with a special palate for experimental and avant-garde works, as opposed to punk rock philistines and contemporary skaters. Indeed, Shredder Orpheus may feature rather lame old school skater slang and majorly moronic scenes of comic relief, but it is also a piece of tastefully trashy punk poetry. As for the place of the Orpheus myth in the modern day world, director McGinely probably said it best when he stated in an interview regarding his interest in reworking the ancient story: “Usually protagonists in the Hero's Journey stories are warriors, but Orpheus is a unique hero: a transformative artist and musician that could manipulate consciousness as well as as animate material objects. I found the music-driven love and death story embodied in the Orpheus archetype irresistible.”  Indeed, Orpheus is the hero of poets and artists, so it is only natural that Shredder Orpheus depicts hell as a mainstream television network that is run by pale yet swarthy beings that incessantly distort reality and look like they slithered out of the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

-Ty E

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