It’s been a year since the amazing Swiss surrealist painter H.R. Giger was lost to us. He was best known for his “Xenomorph” creature design for the film Alien, album art for Emerson Lake and Palmer and Debbie Harry, and for the notorious poster included in Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP, the utterly preposterous censorship repercussions from which derailed that band’s existence. To mark the first anniversary of his passing, the Museum of Arts and Design, on Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan, is hosting a three program festival of Giger documentaries, and rare films to which he contributed design work. The films will run over Memorial Day weekend, with a program on Friday, May 22, 2015, and two programs on Saturday the 23rd. If you’re not a New Yorker, keep an eye out; a traveling version of the festival isn’t out of the question.
H.R. Giger and Debbie Harry, 1981
The Friday 7:00 PM program is notable for its inclusion of A New Face of Debbie Harry, the FM Murer documentary about Giger’s videos for Debbie Harry’s KooKoo LP, and it will be introduced by Harry and Chris Stein. (DM told you about those videos last year.) But even more importantly, it also features Murer’s amazing 1969 film Swissmade 2069. The strange 40-minute work is a look at a dystopian future in which nonconformists and maladapts are exiled to reservations, while valued citizens are subject to insanely granular levels of central planning—right down to actual mind-reading—viewed through the Bolex-lens eyes of an alien visitor, which was designed by Giger (his credit is for “Future-Design”). It’s has never been screened in the USA before, which blew my mind to learn—after the Alien films made Giger famous among civilians, you’d think there’d have been at least an arthouse interest in a prior film with a Giger alien design! (UPDATE: we are advised that Swissmade 2069 will repeat in the Saturday 3:00PM program.)
The artist’s longtime friend and agent Leslie Barany was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with us to talk about the festival:
In 2012, I was invited to the Film Music Festival in Krakow where one of the programs was The Biomechanical Symphony, including the best music from all of the Alien films, played by a live orchestra of 120, against huge backdrop projections of Giger’s original Alien paintings. When I learned that the festival had access to other satellite screening venues where they would play some of the complete movies of which they’d just been showing segments with the music, I suggested doing an H.R. Giger mini-documentary film festival, so people could see another side of Giger, the Alien designer, and they went for it. Two of the directors who lived in Europe flew in and we did a Q&A after the screening. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase films about Giger that weren’t often seen.
The hastily assembled mini-film festival of three documentaries was very well received, so it was always our plan to do it again, but it wasn’t until after Giger’s death that I returned my attention to the project. Swissmade 2069 wasn’t part of the Krakow program, but when I started working on this again with my Co-Producer, filmmaker Zev Deans of Panorama Programming, we knew it would be an important part of this new festival. I was in Switzerland as recently as two weeks ago and did some digging because we saw that the quality we had of some of the films was not the best. We went back to the original prints where it was needed and new digitized transfers were made. So we’re looking at clean prints on Necronomicon and Giger’s Alien, which we restored so that it’s now Giger’s voice with subtitles.
Director (AND designer, AND illustrator…) Zev Deans, who co-produced the festival, shared his take on Swissmade 2069 with us in an email:
I have been a fan of Swissmade 2069 since I was ten years old, and yet I had never seen it. It doesn’t exist on hardcopy or online. All I had to go on was a small paragraph in an art book and two strange photos of a man and a dog, both in elegantly strange prosthetic outfits. It sort of became the holy grail of arthouse mysteries, for me. An experimental film made during the summer of love, about a dystopian society woven by state control, shot literally from the perspective of an alien visitor, hand-crafted by none other than HR Giger? Yes, please!
Swissmade 2069 is directed by Giger’s longtime collaborator FM Murer, and Giger’s fingerprints are all over this film. During the psychedelic 60s, Giger must have stuck out like a sore thumb. In the film, we encounter over-zealous hippies, militant recluses, the infrastructure of a paranoid government and its complacent civilians, all from the removed perspective of an alien visitor. These passing observations are, for me, a reflection of Giger’s own vantage point as an artist both at odds with and terribly fascinated by the species he was born into.
And the film is a prescient success! The film predicts a lot of today’s techno-realities: Match-making via computer algorithms, fully-integrated domestic spying, a compliant population voluntarily committing acts of self-surveillance, and marginalized patriots dismissed as militant crazies for removing themselves off the grid.
The second program, Saturday the 23rd at 3:00 PM, is titled “Inside HR Giger’s Sanctuaries.” It’s assembled to showcase docs that explore how Giger’s environments informed his works, and will include screenings of Through the Eyes of H.R. Giger, H.R. Giger Revealed, and the very cool H.R. Giger’s Sanctuary, which includes a tour of the H.R. Giger museum conducted by Giger himself.
The highlight of the Saturday 5:00PM program seems by my reckoning to be Passagen, the story of Giger’s “Passages” paintings of the early 1970s. It turns out to be a timely subject, as just recently, one of those paintings, the one owned by the late Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, in fact, has fetched the highest auction price of any Giger work. They’re based on—of all things—a photo Giger shot of a garbage truck, which the painter transformed into enigmatic portals. (They’ve more recently been transformed from enigmatic portals to a fairly preposterous watch.) It was filmed by—wait for it— FM Murer, and was broadcast as a television special in Europe in 1972.
Here’s the festival trailer, followed by the only embeddable clip of Swissmade 2069 I could find with a clear shot of the Giger alien, and then a clip of the Young Gods live-scoring a screening of it at a Swiss film festival five years ago. If you’re in NYC and you’re able to attend, you might like to know that admission to each program is only $10.
Bottomless thanks to Eric Freeman for invaluable assistance with this post.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Behind-the-scenes photographs from the set of ‘Alien’ (1979)
Incredible H.R. Giger bar puts you in the belly of the xenomorph
New carnivorous plant named for H.R. Giger is beautiful (in a vagina dentata sort of way)
H.R. Giger and Debbie Harry interview, 1981