Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Aesthetics of Decay

Readers who do not have the resources to afford my The Aesthetics of Decay might be interested in the news that it can be downloaded from the indispensable AAAARG by clicking on the image below - a flattering portrait which comes courtesy of Aurelio Madrid, who is currently reading the book.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Everyday Uncanny (1): "Angst"

One of the many disturbing and striking qualities about Gerald Kargl’s quite brilliant “Angst” (1983) is the uncanny nature of the murdered bodies within it. As a film depicting the psychopathology of a nameless serial killer (played by Erwin Leder), the plot unfolds through a sparse internal monologue narrated by the killer. This monologue speaks of his desires to execute a perfect murder, having been freed from prison for attempting to kill his mother: “The fear in her eyes and the knife in the chest. That’s my last memory of my mother.” From the outset, we are confronted with a killer lacking the traditional forms of cinematic redemption: intelligence and charisma.

The first in a series of accidents in the killer’s plan occurs when he fails to strangle a female taxi driver with his shoelaces. But far from inducing a comical response, the break in his plans only heightens the strangeness of the act itself. The killer and his alleged victim confront one another in the midst of an incomplete experience, as though her gaze was prematurely cast upon him. He hesitates, the shoe lace still attached to his fingers and his humiliation established.

Having fled to a house in the woods, the film’s psychodrama begins. Shuffling around the house in a crab like fashion (as that of Klaus Kinski in “Aguirre”), he covers his hand with the sleeve of his blazer and breaks the window. The house is bare, its contents minimal. But now he is excited, grabs a knife, and lies in wait. A disabled man with a patch of white dribble seeping from his mouth is wheeled out. “I was in a state of mind that excluded every kind of logic. I was afraid of myself.” The camera is in his face, his eyes bulging and his mouth aghast with excitement. But now the rest of the family, the mother, daughter, and dog, have returned. There is barely any dialogue in this key scene, the family shuffling about, as though the habits were sedimented in their bodies.

Suddenly he runs at the girl, pushing her over, the knife flinging from his hand. The mother hears commotion, looks up, but does nothing. He meanwhile, has turned rabid, and is running amok as his fantasies are becoming realised. A disturbing scenario ensues.

Quite apart from its brutality, this is a striking scene in several respects. First, in contrast to the heavily stylised aesthetic of Dario Argento’s “Tenebre” (released a year earlier and dealing with similar material), there is no veneration of blood as an aesthetic gesture. In fact, when Kargl’s killer does end up stabbing the woman in a subway before raping her dead body (an image Gaspar NoĆ© employed later on in “Irreversible”), then the victim’s passivity compounded with the barrenness of the environment undercuts the viewer’s detached spectatorship in this scene, a discomfort that is heightened as Klaus Schulze’s dronescape stops midway through the violence, leaving a silence in which the killer’s wailing joins forces with the barking dog. This disjunction between silence and the murdering of the woman is uncanny: it is as though the killer has missed his cue, and is now transgressing a limit of the very act.

In the famous scene from Argento’s film, by contrast, the slaying of a woman results in her blood being sprayed across a white wall, in a highly self-conscious and aestheticized fashion that is in keeping with the psychosexual, Freudian arc of the film. And there is no doubt that Argento is a master of this synthesis between the kitsch and the abject, between the operatic and the brutal. The conjunction of these polarities establishes a detachment on behalf of the viewer, in which the balletic flow of blood and flesh, together with his celebrated use of crane tracking, fuses violence with eroticism without any lacuna between them.

Gerald Kargl’s killer is not even anti-Freudian, less even a brutal expression of the id, and nothing more. Rather, Gerald Kargl’s killer is disturbing because he is essentially no different from the family in their native home, except that his motives are orientated toward murder. Beyond this, he speaks the same, dresses the same, and even assumes a parallel mode of embodiment. It is for this reason, that when he his attempting to revive the dead mother—whom he accidently killed, or rather killed prematurely—then the dead mother and the killer enter into a necrophilic dance, whereupon her limp body, corpulent flesh, and stiff arms, offsets his attempt at having her witness his crimes. “I thought she was pretending, like a fox that pretends to be dead” he remarks while lifting her body from one room to another. But there are no eyes to testify to his creation, and their entanglement suffers once again from an accident in reality. “Nobody can act that well.”

Kargl’s direction is a perfect rejoinder to the detached spectatorship of Argento’s murder as ballet. There is a reason that the family do not scream in the face of the killer: he is neither totally abject nor totally seductive, but rather occupies the liminal ground of being already familiar to the family. That the film is called “Angst” is thus indicative of a number of readings, the least likely being the angst of the killer himself. One could, I suspect, interpret “Angst” as the angst of the family in their socio-political status, etc. But it seems to me that the film is best served through a Heideggerian reading of angst, especially in its relation to the unheimlich, thus serving to articulate the peculiar sense of everyday uncanniness at the heart of the film. More on that next time.