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When you get about halfway through Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World, you realize that only $150-an-hour professionals whose offices feature couches and books by Freud will likely be able to truly understand the influences behind the titular Swiss painter, sculptor, and Oscar-winning set designer’s work.
One of the documentary’s talking heads, in fact, is a psychiatrist (so let’s bump that up to $250-an-hour); later in the film, Andreas J. Hirsch, an Austrian photographer who’s curated Giger exhibitions, analyzes the artist as if he were one: “He feels most at home around the uncanny,” Hirsch says. “He feels at home in places we run from in fear.” In contrast, Hirsch adds, most people (at least the nonpsychotic) may visit their dark sides, but prefer the light.
That’s the simplified form. Even more straightforward: Giger created what terrified him as a means of overcoming that fear or healing raw wounds. And throughout Belinda Sallin’s 95-minute debut documentary, you’ll hear this again and again and again, as if there’s nothing else to say.
It might have been helpful if someone had used the term “art therapy,” which is why Giger started drawing in the first place when he was a child. Giger’s wife, Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, tells an anecdote of the fateful experience that scared him creative: He accompanied his sister to a museum and was frightened by a mummy. To his mortification, his sister laughed. So he visited that mummy every week until he was no longer afraid.
Still—despite Giger’s mesmerizing images—Dark Star is a superficial bore. There’s no linearity here; instead, either Giger or members of his social and creative circles relate random memories, often with very little indication of who they are or what their relationship to Giger is. Even his award-winning work on Alien is all but glossed over, and perhaps worse, no mention is made of the amazing art he planned for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune, which was shamefully never filmed. It makes for a frustrating viewer experience for anyone who’s not an H.R. obsessive.
The best segments of the documentary are fan-related: At a book (or body) signing during the grand opening of his museum, one fan weeps; another calls him “Master.” Someone also had the brilliant idea to project Giger’s paintings onto a movie-theater-sized screen, which leads to powerful visuals. When the artist walks toward the screen and stands there a minute, facing the audience and dwarfed by his consistently mysterious, complex, and foreboding images, the sight is even more magnificent.
Most of Dark Star, however, is filmed in Giger’s residence, which is painted black and overwhelmed with books and artwork, making it seem more like a forgotten storage space than a home. (The “ghost ride” in his backyard—a train adults can hop on for a tour of his scarier sculptures—though, is very cool.)
The doc also feels rather staged, as if you can hear Sallin telling Giger to, for instance, open the front door and look contemplative, or walk through his museum alone and look contemplative.
Giger died in 2014 shortly after filming wrapped, and here, he mostly comes across as an elderly man who shuffles around his home and isn’t very happy. It’s a joy, then, to see archival footage of his younger self, even if these photos and films pop up without context. It’s especially inspiring to watch Giger design his museum with energy and enthusiasm. Of course, a documentary of a then-living celebrated artist would feel incomplete without filming him in the present, barring crippling frailty. Dark Star covers the present thoroughly—well, at least Sallin shoots in the present, not that it tells you much. What it needs is a more complete retrospective of the past.
“Just jump. The angels will take care ofyou.”
That Satan, always telling lies.
Carl Boenish, the title character in the BASE-jumping documentary Sunshine Superman, dies. And he dies after relating this line—which the devil, as the story goes, told Jesus—to the guys who accompanied him on a ridiculously high, ridiculously jagged cliff the day after he broke a world record in Norway in 1984. Boenish’s last words referred to his parachute: “This is my angel.”
(Oh, come on. You knew what happened going into Grizzly Man, too.)
First time writer-director Marah Strauch (who also plays Boenish’s wife, Jean, in re-creations) has crafted a jubilant tribute to Boenish’s life and passion, which morphed from simple skydiving to a derivation he invented, “fixed-object jumping.” When it caught on, Boenish and his inner group of enthusiasts knew they needed a catchier name, which led to the acronym BASE: buildings, antenna towers, spans (bridges), and Earth. You have to leap off of all four to be considered a BASE jumper.
According to the family and friends interviewed in the film, Boenish was a fount of perseverance and joy. He contracted polio—from the vaccine—when he was a child, and as soon as he overcame it, he was challenging classmates to footraces and himself to just about anything he could. In archival footage, which comprises much of the film, Boenish tells a reporter that he didn’t want to “grow old or grow up,” because a child “hasn’t been taught what he can’t do.”
Strauch portrays Boenish as the equivalent of a modern motivational speaker, complete with the sense you get from a few of them that something’s a little off. TV producer John Long describes Boenish and Jean as “not weird, just different.” He also said that being in Boenish’s presence was “like running into a geyser.” It’s this aspect that makes Boenish seem—well, actually, weird. Can anyone possibly be that high on life?
Throughout the film, Boenish speaks in flowery hyperbole that would feel off to most. He attributes the success of a jump he and his friends made off Yosemite’s El Capitan to the fact that “we were glorifying mankind’s beautiful spirit of seeking adventure, and that we were within our rights of freedom and dominion over all the earth.” Oookay.
More rationally, Boenish answers the oft-repeated question of why he jumps by saying he sees it as “rejuvenation” and that it gives him the confidence to reach for other goals, which inspires his spectators, too. One of these spectators was a Yosemite park ranger, who, though he supported Boenish and his friends, had a job to do: “There were too many free spirits,” he says in the film. “We had to shut them down.”
Jean was a different kind of free spirit—the quiet kind, who in the doc seems nearly out of touch with the reality of her husband’s death, both in footage filmed immediately afterward and in her talking-head interview. Let’s just say that tears are not shed.
The stomach-dropping sequences of freefalls, including gasp-inducing leaps that Boenish and a friend take on a pogo stick and stilts—right up to the edge of a mountain—are certainly thrilling, but they’re made even more so by a buoyant soundtrack of ’60s candy-coated pop. You might even walk away from the film saying not, “That was cool” or “That was sad,” but, “That soundtrack was really fantastic.”
But, of course, Sunshine Superman is ultimately sad, and the puzzling details of Boenish’s death make it even more tragic. Unlike Werner Herzog, who filmed himself listening to the audio of his subjects getting eaten by a bear, the two friends who accompanied Boenish on his last jump instinctively destroyed the photos they took as soon as it was clear things went wrong.
Strauch doesn’t sugarcoat the accident, and lets her interview subjects muse about that day. But the biggest takeaway from her documentary isn’t that Boenish was crazy (though that’s somewhere in the top 10). It’s that he had, as that conflicted park ranger described it, “an aura of life.”
Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World and Sunshine Superman open May 29 at E Street Cinema.