Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 09, 2015 1:04 pm 
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The arch monster-imaginer feebly fading at home

HR Giger, Hans Rudi Giger -- fans of sci-fi horror movies and ghoulish fantasy art know the name as legend, and his is the style that launched a thousand tattoos. Swiss German, Hansruedi to friends, he was from early on a fabulous airbrush artist (when airbrush was an essential technique in illustration and advertising art) and a tireless draftsman of precocious boy's-bad-dream imagery. It's airbrush manipulation that gave realness and volume to the rounded, soft-hard biomechanical forms in his busy, sensuous paintings, some of which look like those of Yves Tanguy or Wilfredo Lam, with a more ghoulishly representational and human element added. He cites Salvador Dali as an influence. He is a kitsch surrealist, whose sexy-scary pictures went successfully into posters early on and spread his images over continents. It is not their originality but their determined, obsessive darkness that recommends them to us. The movies took him up, with varied success. He acknowledges with pride his contribution of the monster for Alien. It won him (with collaborators) the 1980 Best Effects, Visual Effects Oscar. His "alien" monster is a hideous parasite that lodges in the chest of its host, coming out to become and devour him, turning into a giant oozy spider thing dripping with thick viscous afterbirth. If you find that image yummy, HR Giger is your man, and this documentary is a must-see.

Swiss filmmaker Belinda Sallin's movie, though fascinating, is not absolutely the last word, for various reasons. It is not an adequate survey of the artist's widespread activity, notably omitting information from Hollywood people or describing the very important designs he did for Alejandro Jodorovsky's fabulous unfinished masterpiece film version of Dune (for which, see the important documentary Jodorovsky's Dune). Sallin shot her documentary mostly in and around Giger's messy, treasure-filled house in Switzerland, recently, not long before the artist's death. He is stumpy and feeble, speaking with difficulty, getting around slowly. He moves as one who is delicate and ill, but patient to endure a little longer. We don't know why he was so diminished, but he died after a fall, at 74, May 12, 2014, shortly after completion of the film.

Giger's condition in the film is shaky, his appearance pale and ghostly. His face is a mask of sadness, with a sweet smile. His voice is a forced croak. It is painful to watch him speak. Sallin has been criticized for filming him in this condition. (She has excused herself by saying he was not harmed, but treated with great reespect, and nothing was done against his will.) This is why in her review Cheryl Eddy calls this a "melancholy and intimate" portrait. As seen here the artist has a ghoulish quality that's not inappropriate, even if he seems quiet and bland and his Spanish-born mother-in-law, Carmen Scheifele de Vega, says he is just a "normal" guy in person. (An obsessed one, evidently.) The aging artist and his creaky, overstuffed, labyrinthine house are good objective correlatives for the gloomy vision. His garden is a disorderly, decaying maze of his sculptures of creatures and tentacles and skulls with hovering bushes and vines. The psychiatrist and writer about hypnosis and special mental states Stanislav Grof takes us through it, saying it's like an amusement park ride and also like the womb. Some of the foliage appears stiff and dead, and that's good. But if instead everything had been lush and green, that would have fit too. Giger's creatures are harbingers of death, but are vibrating and pulsating and alive. In his vision, death alternates with menaacing, paracitical life.

Early in the film Giger himself, who throughout is often seen but says little, shows a decrepit skull, amid shelves full of them. He says it was his first, given him by his father when he was a child. It frightened him, so he tied it to a string and dragged it through the street in an effort to tame and dominate it. Giger confronted his fears repeatedly as a way to tame them.

We hear many admiring comments in the film about Giger's work from his wife, Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, now director of the Giger museum. When he says he got one of his images from an LSD trip, she hastens to assure us that he didn't do many of those. Her remarks are so worshipful they're cloying. But women were important in his life and the source of some of his more memorable images, even if those images seem both exploitative and fearful. He speaks hesitatingly of the great love of his life and muse, Swiss actress Li Tobler. She committed suicide in 1975. Paul Tobler, her brother, describes their oppressive Catholic background and her suicide and its aftermath in detail. We glimpse her, and portraits of her by Giger with distortions, tentacles, partial underpinnings of intestines and bones. At times they look like stiffer, more humorless versions of Francis Bacon portraits. At others, they seem theatrical, arty anatomical drawings. Giger's draftsmanship is impressive and intense, but at times seems to overpower his work and weigh it down, the lines like chains on flesh or barbed wire circling round mountains. As with some other artists impressive as draftsmen, from Rembrandt to Jay De Feo, he seems to find color obtrusive and avoid it.

A talking head is Mia Bonzanigo, his first wife and former assistant, during his glory days of Alien and Hollywood calling, when he won the Oscar and designed giant monsters with mouths like double vaginas. Archival footage and stills help here, but as mentioned, Hollywood is not heard from during the time-frame of the film. We hear from Tom Gabriel Fischer, Giger's assistant and a death metal front man. This is another world into which Giger's vision penetrates: music.

Giger's elaborately imagined contraptions sometimes resemble the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Of course he wasn't a genius or artist on that level, but his talent was protean and far-ranging. He was skillful at adapting it to multiple commercial uses. He was not only a painter, sculptor and set designer and designer for movies. He could design a product line, and fit out bars. There are several of the latter, though a Japan version he disowned. If this documentary is not all we might have wished, it's good to have something about a figure who straddled so many worlds, including this one and the next. His influence is wide-ranging and continues to be felt.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World/Dark Star: HR Gigers Welt , 95 mins., debuted at Zurich, showing at fests in Hong Kong, Buenos Aires and Louisiana. It has its US theatrical release (limited) 15 May 2015.

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