RIP HR Giger


The man who first really scared the living shit out of me was HR Giger.

Oh, Ridley Scott gets some credit. And Bolaji Badejo, the guy in the alien suit. One of the most memorable and effective horror movies of all time, Alien played on HBO in 1980. I crept out of my bedroom to sneak-watch it, ignoring my mother’s warnings that it’ll give you nightmares.

And boy, was she right.


It plays equally well to men and women. The creature that crawls from the eggs those astronauts find in the belly of the wrecked ship makes impregnation by rape an equal opportunity nightmare. Everyone remembers the scene at the table where John Hurt really gets hurt. Talk about an unwanted childbirth. For men, these scenes give a horrific glimpse of what it’s like to not have control of your own body, to imagine what it’s like to know there’s a creature out there that wants to use your body for its own purposes. The story is pure genius that way. Apparently, that’s how tsetse flies reproduce. I’ve never been happier to be a mammal, than after learning that.


Giger’s creature gave me great nightmares. The one I remember most is a huge fly with the face of the alien chasing me, with its toothy double mouth. I told you so, Mom said. But I didn’t care. I loved being scared. Especially by an eyeless black monstrosity made of bones and fangs, the stuff of pure nightmares that looks as if it crawled from the cesspit of the human id.

Giger’s art was hard to find back then. I found it on the cover of a Debbie Harry album. And then one of my favorite bands of the time, Dead Kennedys, became embroiled in a pornography trial. Which made listening to them all the more rebellious. Their album Frankenchrist included a poster with some HR Giger art of decaying sex organs lined up in a row. It grossed me out, but I mailed in for the poster- they couldn’t sell it with the album during the trial- and hung it on my wall to be shocking.


I still don’t know what Giger was trying to say with it. Or any of his art, except the more overtly political stuff, with guns and jackbooted thugs. Over the years I collected many of his books, such as Necronomicon II. His art was disturbing on the subconscious level, reminding us that we’re all meat and parts, like offal at the slaughterhouse. He had a unique imagination, and I am glad he lived a long life and shared it with us.


Gus Van Sant cast the Oscar bait on the waters and Sean Penn took the hook, giving a fantastic performance that never looks like Sean Penn. This is a great leap beyond his performance in Mystic River, and he truly manages to embody the character of Harvey Milk- the crusading gay rights activist and first openly gay politician elected to public office.
Van Sant directs quite well, and seems more on track with his older films like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho than his bland but name-making Good Will Hunting. His sardonic eye is back, and we first meet Harvey in New York, at a random pick-up on his birthday. The benefit of being made by a gay director is that no punches are pulled and we do not shy away from the infamous ’70s lifestyles and indulgent parades that are now frowned upon in an age where gay marriage is possible.
Prop 8 may have passed, but they have come a long way, and they stand on the shoulders of drag queens who got the shit beat out of them at Stonewall, and people like Harvey, who were unapologetic about their sexual orientation. Harvey and Scott- his pickup who becomes a long-time lover- move to San Francisco to escape the closet culture, and start a camera shop on Castro Street, near Haight-Ashbury and its accepting hippie culture. The camera shop becomes a gay activist hangout and eventually Harvey wants to change the system, and make it work for them- so he runs for office. Many, many times, before an act of gerrymandering allows him to become supervisor for his neighborhood.

He pulls together a team- young hustler Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild), lesbian campaign manager Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill, Dan in Real Life), and a motley gang of gay activists, that help drive him to victory with some political maneuvering- like leading a huge crowd of rowdy protesters to the steps of City Hall before quelling them with his natural public speaking skills.
By this time Scott- played to organic perfection by James Franco, another actor who’s showing just what he can do if he has the chance- has tired of the political stress, and Harvey is with a flaky guy played by Diego Luna- once again this is not a puff piece, and we see some of Harvey’s weaknesses and inability to break things off. Thankfully this is not delved into deeply- we don’t get obvious Hollywood mirror monologues that tell us he has a need to make people happy, he can’t say no, or whatever. We get a picture of a man with a mission, ahead of his time.
While teaching us a bit of history is one aspect of the film, it is more about character, Harvey as a person and his attitudes. We know the story- Harvey will succeed, only to be shot down by fellow supervisor Dan White. The movie is perhaps wise in its decision not to dwell on the circus trial of Harvey’s murderer, and the riots that followed the decision. In fact, the movie lets hero Harvey’s tragic flaw- that he was perhaps too kind, or couldn’t see a dangerous personality when it stared him in the face- speak for itself.
Josh Brolin plays White as someone who looks dead normal but obviously has something bubbling beneath the surface- someone who should not be crossed. He’s come a long way from The Goonies, and this is a big step from No Country for Old Men, as well- less subtle, but more risky. Penn’s performance will be the talk of the Oscars, but Brolin, Franco, and Hirsch all do amazing jobs here. In the end, Harvey Milk’s refusal to accept the backwardness of the times and his embrace of a more ideal future is the movie’s enduring message. Will it make a difference the next time a Prop 8 type referendum comes to a popular vote? It’s beyond that. It’s a picture of a man without whose tireless work, the very idea of a gay marriage being legal could not be given serious thought. Gus Van Sant has crafted an excellent biopic of Harvey Milk, and doesn’t clutter it with messages. Anyone with half a brain can see the message in Harvey’s life. That we are all created equal and granted inalienable rights.

My one disappointment: that the Dead Kennedys song “I Fought the Law (And I Won), which excoriated the manslaughter conviction that White received for executing the Mayor and Harvey Milk, was not used in the film, and the riots forgotten. The infamous “twinkie defense” and the ability of an ex-cop to serve a mere 4 years after assassinating two political figures, is something else that must not be forgotten.

3.5 dongs out of 4