Wednesday, May 14, 2014

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream, but on Earth Everyone Can Tweet Your Death

I had never heard the name H.R. Giger until watching the special features on my ALIEN DVD a few years back.  He was the man most directly responsible for the iconic design of ALIEN's titled antagonist, which, like life itself, was equal parts horrifying and beautiful.  I suspect that most people who don't have time for DVD special features (you know who you fucking are) might not have even been aware of his existence until it ended on May 12, 2014 and his name made the news in connection to his most famous creation.  He was a visual artist, though I can't personally speak to his success in those circles as I don't typically follow the "art world" to any meaningful degree (read: at all).  All I know about H.R. Giger is that he created one of the most innovative and memorable character designs to come out of Hollywood from a time when film makers were still allowed to do cool shit, and that his name itself sounded like it came straight out of a sci-fi movie.

I'm not sure what H.R. Giger was like in real life or even in a workplace environment, but for me his alien design represents a fundamental shift in the way Hollywood and raconteurs in general approach their material now and common audience expectations. Back in 1979 when ALIEN was first released, there was a different ethos that existed around narrative art forms than exists today. With the modern propensity for sequels and franchises, the current trend it toward mythology-building instead of storytelling. The mythology-building tendency is perhaps best exemplified by the recent onslaught of Marvel movies chronicling the (mis)adventures of everybody's favourite (and not-so-favourite) Avenging super heroes.

There are pitfalls on either path, of course, but with the mythology-building mentality, there is a sense of constantly answering the question "Why?" like that annoying fucking child we all used to be, when we'd answer each answer with that single-worded existentialist plea.  Every goddamn thing has to be connected somehow, and every character has to have a twenty-episode backstory, even if it's to explain why he likes Fruit Loops instead of Captain Crunch for breakfast.  There are two problems with this: A) the people building these stories become slaves to the minutia and get bogged down in mythology-building for its own sake, which is fine for an encyclopedia, but much more difficult to use effectively for narrative purposes like advancing plot or characters (IRON MAN 2, anyone) and B) it flies in the face of the old entertainment axiom of suck dick to get ahead leave the audience wanting more.

I guarantee you that H.R Giger's alien design would not have made it to the screen today, even with Ridley Scott at the helm, which he proved with PROMETHEUS.  The filmmakers would have "Why?'d" him to death at every fucking step of the way and sent his vision through a veritable meat grinder of questions: How did the environmental characteristics influence the evolutionary development of this organism? Why doesn't it have eyes?  Does it run on sonar like a bat?  Why does it have a tongue that looks like a second, smaller mouth?  Does it have different digestive tracts?  Does the elongated skull mean it has a larger brain and that it's more intelligent?  Is the exoskeletal structure consistent with other carbon-based, oxygen-breathing life-forms?  What purpose does the tail serve?

What purpose?

It was fucking cool, that's what purpose it served. In 1979 H.R. Giger created a surrealist vision of a creature that was meant to evoke an emotional response. What was great was that back then not everything had to "make sense." Sometimes artists and filmmakers were allowed to do something simply because it looked cool, which I will define here as aesthetically appropriate to the narrative context.  Giger was allowed to draw on a rich emotional pallet and created a horrifying image perfectly placed along that uncanniest of valleys.  The whole point was that he was allowed to reach into the collective nightmares of humankind and pull out something that evoked sheer, bedwetting terror.  Giger's work burst in our minds as surely as that alien hatchling burst from John Hurt's chest.

I think what H.R. Giger's most recognizable work represents is an ability to, as Obi-Wan Kenobi put it, "let go your conscious self" in the respect of not trying to answer every question ad infinitum. Or rather, he was answering a different set of questions where contextually appropriate aesthetic stimulation didn't take a back seat to the minutia of establishing rules for a fictitious universe like some wannabe demi-god.

Sometimes it's enough to answer the question "Why?" with "Because it's fucking cool." Sometimes it's OK just to be so long as what you're being is awesome.  Thanks and farewell H.R. Giger.


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