Becoming What We Are: Reflections on ‘Angst’ and ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

Like Angst (1983), John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer opens as the titular character is released from prison. And like Angst, it follows the ex-con as he attempts to navigate a world that does not, and cannot, have a place for him.

I remember seeing Henry for the first time. I was probably fifteen. It came on IFC around three in the morning – I didn’t often sleep in those days. As the credits began to roll, I couldn’t move, or speak, or breathe. I had seen something, which I could not unsee, and the likes of which I suspected I would never see again.

Its final images, still, are among the most haunting I have laid eyes on. And, yes, I have seen whichever French movie you are now picturing in your mind that supposedly one-ups Henry‘s ‘disturbing factor’. It is not a particularly bloody film, especially by today’s standards. But it does not need to be.

Like Henry, Gerald Kargl’s Angst is ubiquitously terrifying. It reminds us that the sordid is always more commonplace than we imagine. Culture is is not as it seems – innocuous, uneventful. Rather, depredation is fairly mundane; Cruelty isn’t half as anomalous as we’d like to think it is.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kargl switched careers after completing Angst. Since 1983, most of his directorial endeavors have been commercials – which is a shame, because his final feature film displays a voice that is unique and, perhaps, important.

There is a scene, early in the film, in which our protagonist, a nameless serial killer, reflects on the crimes that had landed him in prison for the previous decade of his life. First, he had killed at least one familial matriarch and had attempted to kill his sister. Then, one dreary morning, he rang the doorbell at an elderly woman’s house and shot her dead when she answered. “I do not know why I killed that woman.” He mumbles to no one in particular. “I did not know her. I just knew that something had to happen.”

Offscreen, a doctor psychologizes our killer’s behavior. “There cannot be murder without a motive.” The professional informs us, and proceeds to attribute his derangement to childhood trauma. He is not acting according to his nature, but against it. He is anomalous; damaged goods.

Perhaps by design, the psychiatrist’s explanations are wholly unsatisfying given the sheer depths of resolute, even transcendent, evil that Kargl is showing us. Our killer knows he is a square peg and society is round. He does not care. His appetites are loud, and his vision is singular.

Which is, perhaps, the crux of the film. In a sense, Angst belongs in the same genre as, say, Garden State. It is about a man who has chosen to embody his ‘true self’. We join him near the end of his arc. He has found the courage to live authentically. He will live, perhaps forever, with the ‘angst’ that pervades a humanity born free in a world that has no designs for him, no over-arching ‘essence’ toward which he ought to ‘exist’, but his life will be his. Our killer is the hero in a Sartre novel.

*

Who is the ‘antagonist’ in Angst?

It has been fashionable, for some time now, to read nearly all of culture as a multitude of zero-sum power struggles. That is to say, not  only is there always an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, but there are always about a million ‘us’s and a million ‘them’s, perpetually engaged in a contest of wills that can only end in violent overthrow.

Hegel believe that the world progressed, in a way, by endlessly correcting itself; Working toward utopie, inch by inch, as the right hand confronted the shortcomings of the left – although, of course, this is a grotesque oversimplification. Things are different now, and remarkably the same. We still acknowledge the interplay between constituencies with differing agendas, but now we’re quick to point out that this interplay, which ultimately synthesizes to produce the culture that we inhabit together, is always a coercive exercise in uneven ‘power dynamics’. That is to say, culture itself is always a fight, and it’s never a fair one.

The reasoning behind this is fairly simple. There is always a ‘ruling’ class and a ‘ruled’ class, we are told, even if there does not appear to be on the surface. The power dynamics between any two individuals in a multi-cultural society will often be uneven because the first individual, say, a white man named Dave with a wife and two kids, is part of a constituency around whom the majority of the culture is based, while the second individual, say, a black Trans woman named Gabrielle, is outside the parameters of what has become ‘normative’, such as heterosexuality, cis-genderism, and whiteness.

And here we run into the issue: So long as certain things are ‘normative’ in a culture, those whose ‘identity’ lies outside of the ‘norm’ are, in effect, ‘othered’, and to be the ‘other’ is, often, a death sentence.

This is one reason why, for example, gay and lesbian persons cannot feel safe with Christians who believe that their same-sex relationships are ‘sinful’. It is not simply because some Christians have targeted them in the past, although, certainly, that is a factor. But it’s more than that. It is philosophical in nature. So long as heterosexuality is understood to be ‘normative’, gay and lesbian lives must be understood to be in danger, because, as we understand it, all of culture deconstructs into violent and uneven power struggles.

Which is to say, for example, there is not, in reality, such a thing a ‘civil discourse’, because the ‘civility’ of the discourse presupposes ‘good faith’ on all sides. The problem, however, is that in a ‘civil’ discourse between the ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ constituencies, the ‘normative’ group has the ‘privilege’ of having little to lose besides their exclusive claims to ‘normativity’, but everything is at stake for the ‘non-normative’ group. There is no win-win, for example, in a debate over whether Trans individuals should be compelled by law to use the restroom that corresponds with their ‘assigned sex’ at birth, because the stakes are relatively low for cis-gender interlocutors, but unfathomably high for the Trans community.

And this is why, as well, many Trans persons cannot feel safe with Christians who believe that one’s ‘gender’ is inviolably linked with one’s ‘assigned sex’ at birth. It is not simply because they ‘want to be the opposite gender and don’t want to be told that they can’t’, but rather that, if all culture ultimately deconstructs into zero-sum power struggles between the ‘norm’ and the ‘other’, then the very suggestion that those who are born with a Y-Chromosome are objectively male and those born with two X-Chromosomes are objectively female is not simply an innocuous opinion that one may agree or disagree with, but is, in a sense, weaponry that will be used to victimize them.

Thus, much ‘cultural analysis’ consists of examining culture with a critical eye, seeking out ‘oppressive structures’ that were previously hidden or unnoticed, as well as examining one’s own tendencies and the tendencies of those around them for patterns that might be ‘problematic’ – that is, habits or behaviors that might subtly victimize others. Ultimately, anything that reinforces the ‘otherness’ or the ‘non-normativity’ of a certain group that has historically fallen outside the parameters of the ‘norm’ or the ‘mainstream’ is dubbed ‘problematic’. The end-game, ultimately, is to root out oppression insofar as it is possible.

This is, unambiguously, a worthy endeavor – and a worthwhile one.

However, its foundations are, for lack of a better word, problematic.

Because they are rooted, it would seem, in the Derridan notion that ‘meaning‘ itself is ultimately unstable. That is, the notion that ‘existence precedes essence’ has become so axiomatic that the entire notion of ‘essence’ is destabilized. So much so, it would seem, that we take it almost for granted that the ‘meaning’ we attach to any given thing is almost exclusively the result of a kind of ‘violent overthrow’ by one almost arbitrary ‘meaning’ over another almost arbitrary ‘meaning’.

That is to say, perhaps Sartre sought to rescue ‘essence’/’meaning’ by suggesting that, although there is no objective, over-arching ‘essence’ toward which we are meant to exist, we nevertheless create our own essence and seek to embody that essence and thus live a satisfying life insofar as it is possible. But even this has lost currency. As we now understand it, ‘essence’/’meaning’ cannot be created – only imposed, coerced.

And that means that all ‘norms’ – all of them – are oppressive, period. Any distinctions made, by any community, anywhere, between what is ‘normative’ and what is ‘aberrant’ are, inevitably, absolutely nothing more than the combined power of an interest group wielded against the powerlessness of those who do not fit into the now ‘normative’ mold.

Thus, whoever is ‘outside the norm’ is, at least in theory, de facto regarded as ‘submerged’, or ‘silenced’, or ‘dominated’, or ‘othered’, or ‘subjected’. In practice, a certain distinctions are made, apparently by sheer intuition, between those whose ‘non-normativity’ has rendered them ‘victims’ and those whose ‘non-normativity’ is, itself, grounds for vilification. But, in theory, there is no intrinsic difference, no essential distinction to be drawn between those who are ‘outside the norm’ for something harmless, or even beautiful, and those who are ‘outside the norm’ for something genuinely destructive or predatory. Both are victims, period, because they are outside the ‘norm’.

So, within the critical framework that is currently fashionable, Society is the antagonist of Gareld Kargl’s film, Angst. Our unnamed killer is a man who, against all odds, manages to break free from the oppressive entanglements of predatoraphobia and bravely embodies his ‘authentic’ self.

He refuses to allow the oppressive ‘norms’ that govern culture submerge him beneath their stifling pavements. The ‘dominant’ culture, which shuns ‘serial murder’ can ‘other’ him if they want, but he will not be bullied into falling in line with the normative demands of the majority culture upon him. Nor will the titular Henry, from Portrait of a Serial Killer.

*

Well. Speaking as a theologian: There is, objectively, a difference between those who are ‘othered’ because their sexuality or gender identity differs from the ‘cultural norms’ and those who are ‘othered’ because their behavior is destructive and predatory. And there’s the rub.

To return to my earlier example, the historic ostracism that LGBTQQIP2SAA persons have experienced in my corner of the world is wrong. That is, objectively wrong. The cruelty directed at the LGBTQQIP2SAA community is not something that I find arbitrarily distasteful. Cruelty toward LGBTQQIP2SAA persons is evil.

And it is evil because kindness is normative in God’s world. If you are cruel, your cruelty is aberrant. It’s contrary to the character of the God whom we meet in the scriptures, and, consequently, transgresses His ‘Law’.

Which is to say, if it is wrong to ‘silence’ or ‘other’ people because of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or otherwise, it is wrong because ‘essence precedes existence’. That is, there are transcendent norms that are normative regardless of whether we acknowledge them. To press the point further: Homophobia is evil, period, regardless of whether the homophobe acknowledges it as such.

Because if all culture ultimately deconstructs into violent zero-sum power struggles between the combined power of interest groups who seek to impose their arbitrary norms upon the powerless, who, in turn, seek to impose their own arbitrary norms upon the majority and thus gain a more evenly distributed share of the power structure, then, it would appear, the very notion that ‘power’ ought to be ‘evenly distributed’ is, itself, an arbitrary sentiment, which has no intrinsic value and can only be imposed or ignored. Seeking justice for those steamrolled by society is a worthwhile endeavor, but it will probably require us to abandon the Derridan and Foucaultian frameworks within which it is typically undertaken.

So, perhaps, Angst and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer pose a subtle, and damning, challenge to our tacit love affair with existentialism. We have long echoed, in one form or another, Nietzsche’s mantra, “Become what you are!” Well, what good, to Walter Kniesek (the real-life inspiration for the film Angst), is ‘Become what you are’? And what good is it to Henry Lee Lucas? And, for that matter, what good is it to me?

There are two camera angles, almost exclusively, in Angst. The first, a distant crane shot that captures the smallness of our killer as he rushes about the Austrian countryside, is used sparingly. The second is an intimate close-up that follows our subject, often in unbroken shots that last for several minutes at a time, and gradually dares us, the audience, to identify with our killer, as we accompany him through an increasingly sordid process of self-actualization. He is becoming what he is.

And so, perhaps, Kargl invites us to wonder, not why our subject has become what he has become, but why we haven’t become what he has become – and whether we won’t. As the credits roll, the offscreen psychiatrist begins again to rationalize our killer’s trajectory, and this time it’s even less satisfying. After everything, we are left with a rather unsettling suggestion: That we always become what we already are, and it’s almost never something toward which we’d have aspired if we weren’t ourselves.

Perhaps our hope is elsewhere. Sartre’s ‘freedom’ from determinism is an empty promise; Nietzsche’s ‘freedom’ from values is a an empty promise. We need a better freedom – something like the freedom to be better than we are. Maybe hope looks like becoming what we aren’t – “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18) – Or, to put it another way: Maybe our hope looks like becoming what we are in Christ.

 

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