P:O.V. No.7 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, POSSUM

POSSUM, film noir, and the past/future
of New Zealand

Jerry White

Like so much of the Commonwealth, New Zealand is undergoing a great deal of transformation as the world moves into an era where tradition is ever-present but not always meaningful. Its cinema of recent years, small wonder, is also in a state of flux, and is marked by an attempt to find new ways to deal with ongoing cultural problems and traumas. Brad McGann's Possum is an especially interesting example of this kind of wrestling, on both formal, thematic and ideological level. The film is explicitly engaged with the myth of the frontier so central to colonialist settler societies such as New Zealand's, although the way that McGann mixes classical themes of romanticism with a harsh, alienated vision shows just how awkward this mythology has become. This ambiguity is re-enforced visually, as Possum's look is defined by a split between a few landscape shots and a preponderance of claustrophobic, noir-like interiors. Further, McGann draws upon an essentially linear narrative form, although there are many ruptures of this kind of clarity, again reflecting an engagement with convention but also impatience with its limitations. Possum is a deeply conflicted film, and illustrates concisely the push and pull between tradition and newness that defines so much of the Commonwealth in a post-colonial age. [1]

Possum is centered around a family living in the New Zealand bush. The father in question traps possums and sells the pelts; his wife seems to have died some years ago. He has three children: a teenage girl named Missy, a young girl named Kid, and a young boy known as Little Man, through whose eyes we see the film. Kid seems seriously mentally disturbed, spends most of her time under the table, and has cultivated an animal-like ferocity. When their father is away selling pelts, Missy gets into a terrible fight with Kid (Kid breaks her mother's strand of pearls and then bites Missy). When he returns he is furious ("the devil entered the house," says Little Man in voice over), and ties Kid to the bed ("you'll sleep in a bed now," he says, trying to bring her wild days to an end). Little Man lets her out, she runs away, and is found the next day, dead in one of her father's traps. This conclusion is an astonishingly brutal image, although it gives the film a kind of formal unity, since one of McGann's opening shots was of a possum in just such a trap. Like his father's ritual of setting a place at the table for his dead wife, Little Man says in voice over that after she died, he always left a window open for Kid, just in case.

The way that this narrative engages with the myth of the frontier is

a highly complex matter, much more ambiguous than a harsh dismissal of the experience that this short narrative summary might suggest. The film has some shots of the forest which surrounds the family home, and while the life that these images stand for is eventually seen as incredibly unforgiving, McGann is also able to convey a very genuine fondness for the landscape. This duality is set up quite explicitly in the opening images of the film, which follows just such a landscape shot with an image of a possum killed in a leg-trap. Some of the film's other juxtapositions are trickier, however, and McGann makes it fairly clear that he has not resolved any of the various moral crises presented by the frontier experience. The motif of animality, for instance, here embodied by the grunting, perhaps insane Kid, has a certain Heart Of Darkness, descent into the primitive sense about it. This is complicated, however, by the awakening that is spurned in Little Man through his interactions with his little sister. "Kid teaches me animals," he says in voice over as the two sit together and look through an old, British-looking nature book. What the frontier experience has produced in this child looks like a movement into madness, but Little Man doesn't see it that way. For him, it promises a kind of redemption of the violence and death that has so far defined his life. What's important, though, is that his life is seen as completely redeemable. It's not that McGann understands life in the New Zealand bush as hopelessly alienating, nor does he see it as dreamily romantic. In the figure of the wild child Kid, McGann is able to compress a kind of promise and betrayal that hints at a deep confusion about the experience of forging a life in unfamiliar terrain.

An understanding of Possum as an anti-pastoral is certainly supported by its noir-ish visual style. The family's small house is shot throughout the film in a dark, somewhat oppressive fashion, with jagged lighting and tight compositions. The interiors give a sense that the characters are trapped in a dark, suffocating space, unable to fully grasp or control their surroundings. Images inside the house account for the majority of the film, and this seems a self-conscious bit of irony on McGann's part: even in the most wide open, seemingly uncontrolled spaces, what dominates is a rigid, crowded interiority. The film's overall mood, despite (or perhaps because of) its pastoral setting, is extremely grim. Visually, it provides very few opportunities (aside from the occasional landscape shot) to revel romantically in the New Zealand bush. It is

important to remember, however, that the noir style of heavy shadows and claustrophobic interiors that is so clearly present here typically signifies an anxiety about urban space. In Possum these visual conventions are reversed, investing a completely rural space (sometimes seen as a utopic escape in noir) with just such anxiety. In a very concise and useful article on noir and rural space, Gary Morris writes that it is ever-important for noir protagonists "[t]o escape from the city, its effects, to feed their spirit by finding again the pastoral ideal that hovers atavistically in their minds."[2] Seen through this lens, Possum might seem an especially dark film given its suppression (by virtue of the narrative centrality but comparative absence in the film's overall visual setup) of the ever-present but unstated escape valve of conventional noir, the countryside.

Perhaps the best way to describe Possum is as a distinctly New Zealandian film noir (if "New Zealandian" is not too absurd a linguistic kluge for the time being). Morris writes that "[t]he combination of spiritual longings and dehumanized, poverty-inducing urban environments creates paranoia and self-destruction - i.e., the fallen world of noir."[3] A crucial difference between the North American and Oceanic worlds, however, is that in New Zealand, it is not the urban world that is "poverty inducing," but the rural one. Comprehensive urbanization is a much more recent process in New Zealand than in the United States, and remote areas remain invested with associations of very real underdevelopment and poverty that is nowhere near as potent as in the United States. With this in mind, the film's erasure of rural serenity seems entirely consistent with a noir world view. Indeed, the film arguably has an ever-present but unstated escape valve of urban space, where there is much more intense social convention (you can't tie kids to their bed, and, moreover, you don't generally need to because they have no reason to act like an animal: urbanity is, after all, a signifier of civilization). A characterizing feature of noir is that characters are trapped and hopelessly long to be somewhere else. McGann obviously understands this and adjusts the specifics of the narrative form to suit the cultural situation that's important to him. This mixture of convention and revision is, of course, very similar to the way that he represents the experience of the frontier.

This mixture is also evident in the film's narrative form. While Possum has an easily identifiable beginning, middle and end, it also

features sequences that depart from this kind of linearity, although they do end up augmenting rather than standing apart from that narrative. One of the film's recurring images is of a very fast, grainy, ground level POV shot of running through bushes and weeds - this seems to represent Kid's frenzied longing, and, as a little kid who sees the world through the eyes of an animal, close to the ground, view of the world. This shot is included at the beginning of the film, when Kid struggles as Little Man gives her a bath, and at the end, when he looks at the book they used to read together and says on the voice over that he sometimes wonders where she is. Like the twin rituals of mourning (Dad/setting an extra place, Little Man/leaving a window open) this repeated image gives the film a sense of unity that, while disrupting the narrative flow, re-enforces the overall meaning of that narrative (in this case, that Kid had a rich but unstable interior life). There are plenty of other shots that serve no immediate narrative purpose: a very high angle shot of the dinner table, now missing two people, comes at the end of the film; a shot of Kid underneath what appears to be floorboards, with water dripping on her, in another image that gives no new narrative information but provides a purely visual summary of what had been communicated so far. Despite being a tightly constructed short film (it conveys a fairly complex story in a mere 14 minutes) there is a great deal in Possum that flies in the face of Hollywood-style narrative efficiency. Like his usage of frontier ideology and film noir visual style, McGann's use of sequential storytelling is conflicted but pragmatic, taking what serves his overall purpose but never afraid to depart from received wisdom.

While there's not space to explore this in full, it is worth mentioning that the Canadian film Silent Tears by Shirley Cheechoo (which checks in at about 20 minutes and was made in 1996) covers much of the same thematic and formal ground as McGann. This film portrays the life of a couple - she's Russian, he's Cree (native Canadian) - who, with their two young kids, work on a trap line somewhere in the Canadian north. Like Possum, the date that the action takes place is not given and is almost impossible to ascertain, and this sense of timelessness gives both films a sense that they are dealing with broad, ongoing cultural arguments. Also like Possum, Cheechoo's film has a discernible beginning, middle and end (it's about what happens when the wife must cut out a tumor from her husband's neck) but this narrative is rendered in a lyrical, occasionally non-narrative sort of way. This comparison is especially important given New Zealand and Canada's common identities both as members of the Commonwealth and as countries whose frontiers have not yet been fully closed. In such places, tradition (both in terms of cinematic aesthetics as well as lifestyle choices that the narratives themselves deal with) is often part of the national life but the frequently unacknowledged specifics of the place necessitate subtle transformations of these traditions.

Sam Neill seemed to be on to just this kind of flexibility in A Cinema of Unease (1995), his documentary about New Zealand film.[4] Neill spends a lot of time talking about how hard it was for New Zealanders to understand their experience clearly enough in order to make films about it (much the same thing is constantly said about Canada). While the insecurity and awkwardness with which Neill is pre-occupied is nowhere to be found in the confident and adventurous Possum, what is visible in McGann's film is a lack of satisfaction with what post-modernists might call meta-récits (or what normal people might call the instruction manuals of life and art). McGann is clearly invoking conventions of film noir, although he makes some radical changes to them. He's also invoking the anxiety of the frontier myth, although he refuses to buy into either the self-loathing or the romanticism that discourse around that myth often embodies. Instead, his film is a tightly constructed but innovative work, partaking both in intense character study and broader cultural critique. New Zealand's cinema, once mired in unease, is emerging into the more fertile ground of ambiguity. Possum provides a fine example of the possibilities of such ambiguity.

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[1] I am well aware of the ambiguities of this term, and certainly believe that there is a serious disparity between the meaning of post-colonialism in a country like New Zealand (or, for that matter, Canada) and countries like India or Ireland. I do not mean to confuse the two conditions, and believe that Canada and New Zealand are living not so much in a "post-colonial" state as an increasingly "post-Commonwealth" state. But that is another article. It is fair to say, however, that throughout the world, the experience of colonialism as it existed in the era of Empire is over, which is why I sometimes draw on the term "post-colonial" to describe this condition. We need a better term.

[2] Gary Morris, "Noir Country." Bright Lights Film Journal #12 (Spring 1994), p.17.

[3] Morris, p.16.

[4] This was directed by Neill, and was part of the British Film Institute's series of films on national cinemas, commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the movies. Other films in the series include Martin Scorsese's A Journey Through American Movies, Nelson Pierre dos Santos' Cinema of Tears (on Brazil) and Nagisha Oshima's 100 Years of Japanese Cinema.

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