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In 1979, a sleeper hit movie by a little-known British director revitalised the genres of science fiction and horror.  A story of (wo)man versus both monster and machine, Ridley Scottís Alien was an unexpected blockbuster that plunged its audience into a dark future world, both grim and strangely lush.  We boarded a derelict spaceship full of otherworldly technology, interiors that resembled metal vertebrae, and dead giant space travelers surrounded by pulsating eggs.  Galaxies away from the basic Area 51 bug-eyed extraterrestrial; Alienís titular creature was a nightmare of skeletal animal and human physiognomy blended with cool, sleek, unearthly attributes that triggered a primal fear in anyone who saw it.  For many, this was their introduction to the surreal, shocking and beautiful world of artist H.R. Giger.

Despite his acclaim after creating Alienís designs, the Swiss-born Giger was neither a neophyte nor an overnight success.  He had worked on paintings, sculptures and other mediums, selling posters and being commissioned for record covers (Notably 1973ís Brain Salad Surgery by Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and magazine work since the mid-1960s.  His bold embrace of science, sexuality, flesh and metal in a style he dubbed, ďbiomechanical,Ē gave expression to dark facets of human nature while celebrating life and humanity.  Known mostly in Europe and Scandinavia, it was the release of his 1977 book, Necronomicon, his pieces in international science fiction publications, and of course the creation of the world of Alien that skyrocketed him to art world royalty.  Despite the endless interpretation and popularity of his work, and his amazing output of books, prints and sculptures even into his seventies; there has been precious little biographical information about the artist, who routinely chose to let his work speak for him.  Dark Star, completed days before the artistís tragic passing after a fall in 2014, seemed to be the best chance the public might ever have of knowing what exactly were the demons and angels that drove H.R. Giger? 

Sadly, even after viewing the documentary, I still have very little idea.

There seems to be a fearfulness infused in Director Belinda Sallinís narrative that forbids her from asking a single question of any value.  Was she afraid to insult or lose access?  Her failure to make pertinent inquiries of Giger about even the simplest matters of interest; his process, his worldview that inspired his creation, his rabid fan following, the publicís perception of his work, his reaction to the fame heís achieved, made me throw my hands up in disgust.  Whatís worse is that Giger himself in those precious few moments when he does talk about something important to his life, like the suicide of his troubled early muse, Li Tobler, seems perfectly congenial and willing to open up and discuss anything.  We are shown a lot of footage of his many helpers and associates, like his adoring wife, Carmen, who is one of the few to give us viewpoints at all about the context or meaning of Gigerís pieces, yet thereís very little follow-through.  Like Gigerís omnipresent mother-in-law discussing their correspondence with Twentieth Century Fox, the company that produced Alien, in what weíre led to believe is a tricky or possibly contentious business relationship, but weíll never know why the lady sighs so deeply when reading their letters.  Infuriating is bringing in Gigerís archivist and his display of something as rare as one of Gigerís earliest sketches that is on camera for less than the blink of an eye.  The archivist also brings up a subject that I was curious about, but is only mentioned in this moment when the gentleman refers to Giger having grown up during World War II and therefore bearing an instinct to collect everything.  I understand he lived in neutral Switzerland, but is it naÔve to think itís possible people in that region felt some effect of the war or its aftermath?  We are shown early pieces of soldiers in gas masks with no further elucidation. 

There are so many missed opportunities to delve deeper into questions and situations that are specifically posed for the camera, itís mind-boggling.  We see Giger standing in a room he calls the ďSpell Room,Ē it is bedecked in satanic imagery; upside-down pentacles, Baphomet, etc., and so many interview subjects discuss the ďdarknessĒ that Gigerís art seems to have a connection to, yet never is the man himself asked to give his views on that common association.  Also, there is the problem of Sallin jumping from one place to another: I am not sure where that Spell Room is?  Are we in Gigerís sprawling, maze-like home (If so, it appeared to be the only place not covered in dust, which might account for his saying it was his favourite)?  Are we in the Giger museum?  Are we in his famous bar?  Are we at his gallery show? The locations change without notice so much, I gave up trying to figure it out; another regret for anyone who would have enjoyed seeing these Giger-drenched spaces. 

There are incredible indulgences that make no sense, like filming dinner party after dinner party with the same group of people time and again.  Sallin interviews Gigerís assistant, a fifty-year-old, eternally chapeau-ed death metal musician named Tom Gabriel Fischer, and he talks about Gigerís influence on him and his music; which means we are forced to sit through one of his groupís songs.  She spend more time on Fischer than she spends on all of Gigerís childhood.  It would have been nice to know what was the spark that encouraged Giger to begin drawing?  Who in his school years encouraged him?  In this story, he is a small child whose father brings home a skull (Why? How?), and was scared of a mummy in a museum once, and then as an adult, shows up at a poster printerís shop to start mass producing his pieces.  Voilŗ.

Other things conspicuous by their absence was the huge effect that the pioneering sci-fi magazine, Omni had on Gigerís international career, by placing him on their covers in the days before Alienís release.  Sallinís focus is very local, which restricts this view.  Watching Giger so calmly received by an audience at a gallery show in Linz and how very sedate they were, made me wonder what kind of reception he would have had from his US fans?  Yes, there are the requisite tattoo displays, but the only time we see someone truly affected by meeting him is one gentleman, who, despite firmly placed sunglasses is stoically trying Ėand failing adorably - to hold back tears at meeting his idol.  SallinĎs purview feels very limited.

In abundance are old film clips of younger Giger moodily walking around (As all young artists naturally do), unnecessary shots of his poster printerís sexy hot pink platform boots, and other pretentious period offal.  While the clips are fun at first, it would have been more interesting to see more of Gigerís photography which influenced his paintings and sculpture (Somehow, Sallin never asks how other mediums moved him).  In the recent film footage, we see a fragile man in poor health, moving slowly, mostly with help, and judging by the sideways movement of his mouth when speaking, he seems to have been affected by a stroke (another thing weíll not find out).  Yet, he is in very good humour about his life.  For someone who created such nightmarish visions of death, the hereafter and the future, it is interesting to hear him say he does not care for an afterlife; that death is the end and having done all he wished to do, and seen everything he wanted to see, was satisfied.  More insight like that wouldíve saved this film.

What does provide a small, desperately needed bit of charm (as Sallin only allows glimpses of what appears to be Gigerís impish personality to shine through) are moments like his interactions with his beloved cat, Muggi.  Muggi is really the star of the show, cavorting here and there, demanding to be carried by interview subjects, completely doted on by his owner.  Muggi is such a spoiled kitty that when we are taken on a ride on the railroad Giger built inside his house, Muggi saunters across the tracks as Giger shouts for him to get out of the way before slowing down to allow the feline to calmly stroll off.  In the war between cat and machine, in Gigerís house, the cat wins.

Sallinís access to the personal, daily life of Giger is the most remarkable thing about the film Ė wasted though it may be.  If you ever wanted to know what itís like to live in the home of the greatest cyberpunk artist, this movie is for you.  That said, just because a filmmaker is granted access to a subject, doesnít mean they should tiptoe carefully around them and get no narrative of value.  Pretty pictures and candid shots of the master at rest werenít enough; I felt as if Iíd hardly learnt anything new about this fascinating figure in art and cinema history.  Sadly, with his death last year, this is probably the best look at the man and artist weíll ever get, and for the opportunity lost, that is a real shame. 

As a nearly lifelong Giger fan, I was terribly excited for the chance to discover more about this artist who changed so many mediums and whose designs meshing the worlds of nature, mechanics, the occult and humanity will continue to influence other artists for generations to come.  What made him tick?  How did he view his own work?  Unfortunately, Dark Star falls far short of asking those questions and so many more.  I wondered if Dark Star was taking a naturalistic angle and just following Giger around being Giger?  Unfortunately itís too contrived and posed for that, so the result just feels hollow and lazy.  If Director Sallin was going for a hands-off, fly-on-the-wall approach, she fails utterly, and it feels like an opportunity tragically wasted.  This true artistic pioneer is an enigma that this documentary seems determined to remain an enigma.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 15th, 2015

 

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Stills Courtesy of Icarus Films

 

 

 

 

 

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