Matters of Life and Death, by Tyler Smith
There’s a deep sadness in Belinda Sallin’s Dark Star, the documentary about the life and work of H.R. Giger. When looking at Giger’s art, we feel a number of things. Sensuality, dread, coldness, and a strange connection with our own humanity. However, I have never gotten a sense of sadness; the closest I’ve come is fatalism. This is where Giger’s art and the film about it start to intersect. Giger’s work often seemed to be about the struggle with mortality and fear, something that undoubtedly seemed far away when he was a young man in the 1970s. In this film, though, his art takes on a mournful quality as he gets closer to the grave.
Most film fans are familiar with Giger primarily as a function of his design work on the Ridley Scott film Alien. And, indeed, it is revolutionary, not only creating one of the most iconic movie characters of all time, but changing the face of modern science fiction. Being a part of Alien won Giger an Oscar and worldwide acclaim, and people have been fascinated with his work ever since.
And for good reason. As the film lingers lovingly over every detail of his paintings, we are overwhelmed. It seems like some strange anomaly. It’s almost incomprehensible to think that not only did a person think these ideas up, but captured them this perfectly and precisely on paper. His art is truly one of a kind, and the film is wise to spend time quietly meditating on it, rather than only delve into the life and mind of Giger.
Because there’s really no way to know exactly how Giger arrived here. Aside from his black clothing and penetrating glare, one wouldn’t really look at the man’s behavior and conclude that he is responsible for some of the most disturbing art of the last forty years. And, when looking at his past, there’s really nothing there to indicate mental or emotional problems. There are moments of tragedy that clearly still haunt Giger, but he was creating this art long before those happened.
Perhaps what is most striking about the Giger’s work is that we can’t simply dismiss it as the work of a madman. He is not mad, merely curious. He wants to explore what makes us who we are, and the interaction between creation and destruction. Many of us struggle with these concepts, but we’ve got things to do and don’t want to go down that rabbit hole. Giger, however, engages with every confused and terrified impulse of his own humanity and creates work that is distinctly his, but I feel has a universal appeal.
As the film progresses, we feel like we know less and less about why Giger creates the art that he does, and that’s okay. There are no easy explanations about where art comes from. There is only the gratitude that somebody took the time to express their feelings, regardless of where they originated.
Dark Star is often difficult to watch, for reasons that Giger undoubtedly would have appreciated. Shot shortly before his death, the film shows us an old man, barely able to get around or speak. He is slow and quiet, and it is sometimes painful to hear him strain to get his words out. It is uncomfortable, especially when we know that he is so close to the end.
But it all seems so appropriate. This discomfort is the exact thing that Giger so often wanted us to feel with his work. Death may be natural, but that doesn’t mean it has to be pleasant. It can be downright scary, especially when we see what is left over. Rotting flesh, skulls, bones, and the metal of our inventions, which will last long after we’re gone. The inevitability of death and loss can be very intimidating, and often very sad.
This sadness is what the film brings to Giger’s story that has always been absent from his work. This isn’t a bad thing, of course. I always got the feeling that Giger was like a scientist, with no time for sentiment. His own life would have to fill in those gaps, and, eventually, it does. H.R. Giger was a brilliant artist and an enigmatic person, and any film that attempted to capture him completely would be a failure. Thankfully, Dark Star understands the nature of its subject, and ends up being a fitting tribute to him.