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DARK STAR: H.R. GIGER’s WORLD provides much of the information we would expect from an documentary appreciation in cinematic form of an artist’s work. We are given a glimpse into his private life. We are given tantalizing clues into the childhood events from whence sprang the psyche that expresses itself with such strange and compelling images; who lives in this reality, but can create a universe at once so futuristic, and yet so primal, so familiar and yet so alien. But, like the best non-verbal art, words are too impotent to fully capture it such musings, and so we are given the simulacrum of intimacy, while being kept at a remove that is both respectful and, perhaps, necessary to appreciate the man and his art as two separate entities.
Certainly, in one of the film’s most memorable moments, Giger himself acknowledges the limitations of words when remembering a painful moment in his life, the suicide of his then girlfriend after nine years together. He is among the usual coterie of talking heads that include friends, colleagues, and family all describing what it’s like to work with him, from a heavy metal rocker who became Giger’s assistant decades ago, to his current mother-in-law, a sprightly Spanish woman who is mightily amused at the reaction she gets from strangers when they learn who her son-in-law is, and then go on to ask if he’s like his paintings.
Dark, brooding, and deeply disturbing while also being aetherially beautiful, Giger’s work has won him an Oscar ™ for his art direction in Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, gone in and out of fashion among collectors, and graced the walls of college students and anarchists since the 1970s. Psychiatrist and author Stanislav Grof offers his perspective on what Giger is trying to say in his work while he leads us on a tour of the macabrely whimsical art in Giger’s backyard, a space filled with overgrown plants, statues of suffering fetuses, and demonic women. It is, opines Grof, a founder of transpersonal psychology, an attempt by Giger to reconcile with his birth trauma. To be fair. Grof’s professional philosophy finds birth trauma to be a key to understanding the workings of the human mind, but as intriguing as it is, it’s also speculation. Giger himself, when asked why he draws an image a certain way can only respond that it looks right. Is it a working out of his birth trauma? Is it, as he himself supposes, a way of facing his most deeply rooted fears, the ones he sees in his nightmares? Is his first remembered trauma, the skull his father gave him when he was six, the reason for his lifelong obsession with death? These are questions that are posed to us in the course of the film, along with fascinating snippets of information, such as how he coped with that first trauma by tying a string to it and dragging his behind him as a way of showing Death who was boss. When. Later, he is asked about what he thinks happens after death, he declares that there is nothing, and that he is relieved. He has done everything he came here to do. There is, indeed, a serenity to his face, now pale and full sitting on an infirm body that is the complete opposite of the dark and slightly dangerous expression that peers at us from old photographs. Still opinionated about his work, still avidly engaged in its creation and dissemination, Giger in his old age has an air of transcendence about him that is Zen-like, and a mordant sense of humor, especially when recalling Ridley Scott’s bemusement over a vagina-esque opening Giger designed for those ALIEN eggs. Fearing to stir up trouble in conservative countries, Scott’s solution was to make a cross out of them, thereby, recalls Giger with a twinkle in his eye, making them doubly obscene.
Director Belinda Sallin observes the same obsession with detail to be found in her subject’s work. Her camera creeps through the labyrinth of Giger’s house cluttered with a lifetime of artwork, collections, and books, following Giger as though she were traversing an alien landscape. Moments of reflection are given time to unfold as people are talking, and after they stop. Best of all, though, are the close-ups of Giger’s work, the odd sensuousness of the machine-like figures who breach the simple categories of animal or machine and coalesce into the vision of evolution at once fascinating and terrifying in both its mechanistic, and overt, sexuality. We, armed with the knowledge supplied by colleagues and film clips, can find a new appreciation for the fact that Giger doesn’t use sketches, he just puts airbrush to work as an extension of his arm. Even if you don’t like the art itself, knowing that it seems to spring directly from his id can only make us consider what we all have going on in those deep reaches of our sub- and unconsciousness.