Toward the end of Brad McGann's 15 minute short film Possum, which focuses on the lonesome life of a family based in the woods, the younger daughter dies. Although it is by accident that Kid dies, when her leg is caught in a trap set for hares, the film left me with a feeling that her death was strangely inevitable and yet very disturbing. The question as to why she had to die kept distressing me. Rather than attempting to answer to that question, I shall in the following try to uncover some of the causes of this distress within the film - in other words, the devices used to make her death seem so inevitable but also enigmatic.
The storytelling in this film is in some ways experimental and in some ways classical.
The dramatic trajectory of the story is classical in the sense that it is based on a simple structure involving a beginning, a middle and an end. Within this structure we are given the story of the family which makes its living from trapping; the very first scene shows the father setting up traps, the succeeding scenes present the various members of the family, their characters, their actions and interactions, and the final scenes deal with Kid's death. Thus, from a strictly dramatic point of view, we are prepared for the death of the little girl by the opening of the film, which imbues our experience of the film with a strong sense of causality or necessity. If you place a gun in the beginning of a film, you have to use it later on. In this context the trap is obviously like the gun.
Among the film's experimental devices are two main stylistic characteristics: the monochrome cinematography and the minimal use of dialogue, which gives way to the boy's voice-over, sometimes whispered sometimes not. The cinematography gives to the depicted milieu a poor and sad, maybe even a tragic look, but also a sense of intimacy that - coupled with the whisper - becomes secretive and points to a lurking and unspeakable danger. The whisper in itself suggests that there is something `more' at stake in the film. It invites us to look for secrets, hidden meanings, for things that are not what they seem to be, for metaphors and symbols.
Considering which lines are spoken in a whisper, the first one comes across as particularly significant as it speaks of the danger caused by the traps for the title animal. On a further semantic level suggested by the whisper, the line contains more than just the specialized knowledge of a trapper. Possum is short for the opossum, a marsupial which is not completely developed at the moment of birth, and which continues its development in the mother's pouch. This born fetus, a premature baby, is obviously an emblem for Kid who was motherless at birth and mentally retarded. She is so to speak retarded, because she was either literally premature or couldn't have a mother's protection as a newborn child. Taking this parallel into account, the whispered statement is a prediction of the dramatic turning point, the death of "the opossum Kid". Already within its first two minutes, the film - structurally and semantically - tells us what to expect and in this manner it creates a strong sense of fatalism.
The semantic implications of the metaphorical and emblematic use of the opossum to characterize Kid, are however developed with much greater complexity. Kid has the extraordinary gift of imitating the sounds of all kinds of animals and in particular the species the opossum belongs to. Even the cat believes her screams and howls to be real, but the opossum peeping in through the window at night doesn't mind. Kid eats under the table and doesn't like to be washed; the editing suggests a parallel with wild dogs, and she bites. The bottom line is that only her appearance can fit a conventional definition of what is human.
In other words, Kid's actions are governed purely by instincts and urges. She is a human being representing a part of what is human, an anthropomorphication of pure instinct and urge. The boy's belief that she is still around after her burial can thus be understood as a hint about Kid's function in the film more as a symbolic representation than as an actual person or character. This reduction of the character to a representation of a specific part of the human, seems to apply to the other characters as well, a reduction which indeed is already implied in the replacement of names with roles: "The Man", "Little Man", Kid and Missy.
The father, "The Man", is the authority. He is against playfulness, he is the one who ties Kid up and he practically only speaks in imperatives. The only time he asks a question ("Did she eat?") it is to give a nod ordering the boy to feed Kid. These opposite qualities in the characters of the Man and Kid point towards an interpretation of them as representatives of the two opposite forces in the Freudian model of a complex personality, the super ego and the id. In such an interpretive framework, Missy - her nickname alluding to the possibility of her being a mistress - takes the position of another person challenging the Man by teasing the instincts.
In this context, Little Man, the boy, should obviously represent the ego in this composite person. And insofar as he is clearly the go-between between the other parties, since he is the only one who interacts with all of the other characters, he fits in perfectly. This Freudian perspective on the character descriptions in the film, implies that what is at stake is an allegory of a fight among the various forces within a person standing before a sexual challenge which ends with the defeat of the instincts.
However inviting this interpretation of the characters may be, the actual drama in the final part of the film seems to negate it. The father ties Kid to her bed, the boy sets her free and she flees only to get caught in the trap. Both actions, the tying up and the untying, lead to the flight of Kid and consequently to her death. But neither the father nor the boy can be seen as intending her death and it doesn't make much sense to extract from the ending a moral such as: "whether you try to tame your instincts or you let go of them, you will kill them". Unless of course, we take the boy's final voice-over literally as a sign that Kid is still around.
The drama at stake in the scenes leading to Kid's flight seem much more to be a battle between the father and the son. The boy who had until then obeyed his father's orders, disobeys him by loosening the rope. The significance of this disobedience is expressed partly by the tragic consequences, partly by the voice-over having just claimed the entrance of the devil to the house. The boy clearly disagrees with his father and by disobeying him, he liberates himself, taking a step in the process of maturity. Again however, it is hard to understand the necessity of Kid's death in this context.
A glance at the temporal structure of the film might illuminate this seeming rejection of coherent allegorical interpretations. The temporal flow indicated by the classical composition is disrupted and maybe even distorted within the film. Until a certain point towards the end, there is no indication that the scenes follow one another in time. On the contrary, the voice-over states that the scenes take place "sometimes", thus indicating that the action in the scenes are really a sampling of events. Towards the end, however, the voice-over sets the specific time of a scene to be "that night". It is only from this statement of time to the end of the film that the story can be seen as a pattern of actions following one another in time. Strictly speaking, the earlier scenes are really one long interruption or delay of the action. On the other hand, however, the demonstrative pronoun "that" assumes a connection in time with what has just been shown and told, but the internal structure linking the former scenes does not reveal how far back this connection reaches. The temporal structure is consequently an insoluble puzzle, a labyrinth of the random and the casual.
This leads us to wonder whether we should take the boy's final voice-over for granted, to question the power of the pictures showing us the body of the little girl, and to ask whether she really does die. A question which is all the more relevant to ask since one of the characteristics of the opossum is the trick it plays in the presence of danger, a trick from which even the standard phrase "to play possum" originates. Maybe Kid only "plays possum", that is: pretends to be dead. Maybe she only slumbers until she - like the instincts - will awaken again - an interpretation which is all the more possible since one of the final scenes (the three people at the dining table) is a repetition of one of the first scenes, indicating the possible start of yet another series of actions like those we have witnessed. On the other hand, to play possum can also just mean to pretend an illness: maybe Kid hasn't really been mentally retarded at all.
The only conclusion is that it is impossible to conclude anything. The film invites one to follow semantically certain tracks, only then to set out a trap on these tracks. It suggests metaphorical layers and develops them, but the allegory they indicate slips out of the hands of the eager interpretator and becomes a dead end. I shall however neither conclude that the film resists interpretation, nor that it dissolves as meaningful communication into pure form. In being inconclusive, the film expresses a solidarity with its main character, the boy. It describes a "state of things" and unfolds a fatal yet incomprehensible tragedy. The boy tries to understand the life he has been given in the remote forest deprived of his mother and, as the film progresses, also of his little sister. He looks for interpretive patterns in an effort to make his circumstances comprehensible, just as we look for them in the film.
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