In the relationship between a filmmaker and their subject, reverence can be deadly. Sure, there are problems when there is a lack of respect – documentary subjects routinely complain about distortions after the fact – but an overabundance of respect seems to plague a subset of documentaries. It usually happens whenever the documentary’s subject is a genius, or the film is the director’s first. Dark Star, the new documentary about the famed Swiss artist HR Giger, is guilty of both. First-time director Belinda Sallin handles her material with too much delicacy, as if probing into Giger’s mind would be disrespectful. The film has its pleasures, even a couple surprises, yet it has more in common with a home movie than the documentary form.
In a testament to Giger’s influence, most people are familiar with his work even if they do not know who he is. He worked in relative obscurity until the late 1970s – producing such works as “The Necronomicon” – at least until filmmaker Ridley Scott decided to incorporate Giger’s imagery into the film Alien. Giger designed all the memorable visuals in that movie, including the alien itself, and his other work is a continuation of those these. He combines grotesque, oddly beautiful machines with human sexuality, so his art is somewhere between a hell-scape and kinky porn. Sallin chronicles Giger’s influence and highlights from his life, while she shoots more intimate vignettes from his home in Switzerland. His home is teeming with his prints and sculpture, although the effect is not entirely unsettling. Instead, Giger comes off as a brilliant, kind man whose ideas provoke nonstop disquiet.
The strangest thing about Dark Star are its glaring omissions. Giger clearly suffered from a stroke, for example, yet Sallin and the interview subjects never discuss it or its long-term effects. The documentary ends with Giger sound defiant – he says he accomplished all he wanted in his life – and there is the sense Sallin takes him at face value. In fact, everything in Dark Star is taken at face value: it reveres Giger and his work, yet there is no apparent investigation to inform that reverance. There are adoring shots of his work, with appropriately ominous music, and little depth over his methods or life. We see some shots of him using his airbrush, adding detail to a canvas, but there are fleeting glimpses that lack the detail of other art documentaries like Tim’s Vermeer or Gerhardt Richter Painting. That being said, Sallin finds some fascinating moments. The art functions like a Rorschach test: we learn about people simply by seeing how they react to it (the common responses are shock, awe, or disgust). And for all his obsession with otherworldly sexuality, there is a childish streak, too. Giger’s house literally has an amusement park ride in it, completely with automatic opening doors, which creates this infectious mix of whimsy and madness. But for an artist who clearly comfortable with his dark side, there is no probe into Giger and what makes him tick. By the end of the film, he is about as mysterious as he was in the beginning.
Thanks to Alien, Giger’s influence expands beyond fine art and into popular culture. His work has a primal effect on his audience, acknowledging a fear we cannot fully understand, so curious filmmakers and musicians are drawn to him. There is Ridley Scott, of course, then there is also Thomas Fischer, a Swiss musician who would also start several influential metal bands (Giger’s work is also found in album art for bands as disparate as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Dead Kennedys). These collisions of art and pop may occur on the fringe, yet they seep into culture like a nightmare that will not go away. Dark Star does not probe this relationship, and instead only acknowledges it like a doting fan. Giger’s work means so much to so many people, so the cumulative feeling from Dark Star is that by honoring the artist, Sallin does a disservice to those who preserve his legacy.