Great artists are kinda fucking nuts. They don’t always seem that way. Sometimes they come across completely normal, as normal as you or I. (Well, you anyway.) Sure, some have their tics and rattles, but it’s the work that really shows where their compulsions lie. To look at his work, Hans Rudolf Giger must’ve been batshit crazy with all manner of body and technological loathing. His prodigious output is among the most distinctive art of the late twentieth century, from paintings to sculptures to the all-time creepiest xenomorph ever to smash its double-hinged projectile jaws into a human skull in Alien (1979). The documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) finds Giger in the final fade of his twilight years, ailing but affable, presiding over his legacy with the creation of the Giger Museum in his home Switzerland. It’s an uneven doc, but Giger’s shadows are impossibly compelling. Grab a ticket. If the ride makes you sick, well, isn’t that what you paid for?
Giger actually built a House of Horrors train ride in the garden of his home. Just like at an amusement park, the rickety cars run on circuitous rails past twisted sculptures and paintings. It’s an unsettling journey into the artist’s burgeoning subconscious, right in his back yard. It’s cool and crazy, and I want one.
The film follows Giger working in his labyrinthine home in Zurich, Switzerland. The house is overrun with his work. Paintings lean everywhere. The walls themselves are paintings. Books line hallways, stack on tables, fill an entire bathtub (Hoarders would’ve gone to town with a Giger episode). Between the books are odd memorabilia, toy robots, human skulls, touchstones for his work or inspirational flotsam. He shuffles from room to room, clearly in ill-health (he died shortly after the film wrapped), pausing for the occasional stilted wheezing interview, but he seems approachable, those around him affectionately calling him “Ruedi”. He’s almost always sketching, fiddling with a notebook, a man who clearly is uncomfortable in the moments where he isn’t consumed by his work.
Giger was a prodigious artist. He worked FAST. He worked without planning his paintings, even tackling immense murals with no set plan beforehand. Part of what fuelled his frenetic pace is the air brush, spraying a finely controlled mist of paint across his canvas. Giger was uniquely gifted with an air brush. He carved contours and shades out of the white expanse, creating his dense monochromatic imagery on the fly. It’s miraculous to see him at work, which the film shows in clips from earlier documentaries, a magician pulling up the unconscious dark freight and splaying it across the page.
Nightmares are the stuff that drove Giger. He was scared of death, scared of war, scared of the machines that shaped and stole our humanity, scared we were merging with them. He was scared of bodies, our oppressive oozing undulating biological fact. And he was fascinated by the links of sex and death, in the same way as almost every major figure of twentieth century thought. His paintings and sculptures were an interrogation of his fears, a confrontation, a means to wrestle with them, and put them to rest.
Death was a seminal influence on young Ruedi. His father gave him a human skull when he was a child. The desiccated cranium unnerved him, so he tied it to a string and dragged it around after him, banging on the pavement, to show the skull who was boss. His sister took him to an Egyptian Exhibition at the museum, and he was terrified by the mummy in its sarcophagus. To face his fear, he went back constantly, till the mummy’s bandaged death masque no longer made him queasy. The compulsive repetition would be a hallmark for his work later in life.
H.R. Giger is a business, probably even more so after his death. Dark Star affords an interesting look at the coterie of associates surrounding the artist. Friends, fans, lovers and their mothers, it’s an odd collection of individuals, all admiring of the genius they seek to further and protect. His partner’s mother is his business manager. His ex-wife manages his museum. A drolly sweet vignette finds Celtic Frost’s Tom G. Warrior describing the huge influence Giger had on the band’s work, and how he championed them in the early days, becoming a mentor and doing the art for their album covers. Decades later, when he isn’t rocking out, Tom works as one of the assistants in Giger’s home. It’s a business, but a charming, close-knit one, with many dinner party meetings, wine flowing and cats constantly underfoot. For someone whose work is suffused with foreboding and unease, Giger’s homespun community is one of the documentary’s more intriguing contrasts. And the chord his work has struck in a broad alternative culture worldwide is even more striking. At a book signing, the tattooed, the altered, the nerds and the goths line up to bask in Giger’s presence, to sheepishly show off their inked counterfeits and visit with “the master”. Awkward and amused, Giger is content to admire so much fleshy homage. They’ve shared the knowledge of uncomfortable truths. In a definite sense, his art helped forge a misfit community.
If there’s one thing Giger’s identified by more than any other, it has to be Alien. His work on the design of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece won Giger an Oscar for visual effects. The penile dome of the xenomorph’s head, the body a creepy cross between a humanoid and an insect, the slavering jaws recessed inside another set of jaws like a vagina dentata, but shooting out of its mouth like an aggressive phallus – this was full-on biomechanoid psychosexual panic, terror that would eat you and rape you simultaneously. It was the kind of all-encompassing fear that could only be stilled by the ferocious survival instincts of Sigourney Weaver. (Charlize Theron is awesome, but Sigourney mother-fucking Weaver, man.) If it wasn’t for Ripley, no one would’ve walked out of a theatre alive.
Dark Star has its flaws. The timelines are sloppy. Director Belinda Sallin does little to identify the major figures in H.R. Giger’s life. Perhaps his most significant muse, his first wife Li Tobler, is only named in passing as Giger agonizes over the question of his responsibility for her eventual suicide. (An actress who suffered from terrible depression, the beautiful woman’s visage is directly captured in many of Giger’s paintings, surrounded by skulls and snakes and strange mystical disfigurement.) In an effort to capture the dark heart of Giger’s work, Sallin sometimes veers too sharply toward a horror movie vibe with clanks and squeaks on the sepulchral soundtrack (admittedly a question of taste, but it just felt like the movie was trying too hard). And there is the ghoulish quest for significance in the face of Giger’s evident frailty. Parts of the movie feel like we’ve snuck into the poor man’s wake, but he’s still sitting there, the ghost that hasn’t yet become one.
Giger loved cats, spirit animals of the underworld. I can’t say for sure he never trafficked with the Old Ones (he did), but whether it’s Anubis or Shub-Niggurath, he opened a conduit to the dark primal passages of the human mind. Thanatos, Eros, these truths we hold self-evident in our pulsing decaying skin. He’s gone now, to the night place. Perhaps you’d care to visit?
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’S World opens at TIFF in Toronto on Friday, June 5th and will be running at least through next week. For more info and tickets see here. The film’s also in limited release in the U.S. and playing festival, so check your listings.