The Latvian-born animator’s latest feature film is an unusually surreal, investigative memoir
Signe Baumane begins her ancestral chronicle of mental illness with the act of pushing a boulder up an incline; the mere thought of something warm and fuzzy is quashed by an imposing terror that is the rock, which rapidly rolls back to smother her. This evocatively Sisyphean analogy may be timeworn to anyone in the ongoing fight against depressive thoughts, but it aptly characterizes Baumane’s ultimate theme about an individual’s inability to articulate their pain to anyone outside themselves.
Rocks in My Pockets struggles with an oddly a similar dilemma, in that its loose if semi-linear narrative is represented by a single voice relentlessly stuck in the same expressive gear. As Baumane links familial tragedies to a common symptom, they’re all spoken for by her deep, deadpan monotone that’s far from the spirited tone of a voiceover artist. The film basically amounts to a memoir-reading over a series of animations precisely conceived after the fact, so the pacing between the two layers never quite synchronizes in a consistently engaging film. Although, that’s not to say that the director’s concerns about self-acceptance aren’t universal and her investigation into schizophrenia unworthy of cinematic premise/promise.
Rocks in My Pockets may feel especially feel tangential to the subject of psychopathy in its opening historical third. It is, however, anchored by Baumane’s choice to illuminate the ambitions and sacrifices of her grandmother Anna — from her early desire for education in Riga, Latvia, to eventual romance with her eccentric boss Indulis, who whisks her away from the city to wooded seclusion. Over Anna’s modest, unjustly stunted life, she faces conservative voices of dissent that fuel regressive, obsessive behaviors: “You made a choice, and you stick by it. There are no other options.” In these years both mentally and physically ostracized, she bears eight children with Indulis; five women who directly descend from their union serve as reference points to the battles that Baumane heightens through playful visual analogy.
The real catalyst to the director’s overarching inquiry is in the secrecy surrounding Anna’s premature death at age fifty, which is strangely shrugged off by family and friends as a result of “exhaustion” and “a weak heart” without a proper autopsy. Dissatisfied with the vagueness of explanation that seems to suggest suicide, Baumane attempts to dismantle the stigma of the “sinful weakness” associated with mental illness as opposed to, for instance, temporary hormonal chaos of post-partem depression. And, through this acknowledgement, she doesn’t quite overcome but at least quells the imbalance imparted to her through genetics, the fact that she was “designed to be crazy,” as her veterinarian sister asserts.
Numerous critics have compared Baumane’s sensibility and animation style to the dark stop-motion fantasy of Jan Švankmajer, who’s certainly a source of inspiration for the production of the film. Yet, the mood she’s created rather recalls the boundless silliness of her contemporary Bill Plympton and the warm capriciousness of John and Faith Hubley‘s work. Rarely do Baumane’s colored pencil and papier-mâché animations feel wholly fluid or polished due to budget constraints (financed in part through a Jerome Foundation grant and Kickstarter campaign), so the accumulating feeling of watching the film often imitates the act of skimming panels in a graphic novel anthology.
The subject matter may conjure memories of the twisted depths of David B.’s Epileptic and the swarming images of Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole (both masterful psychological works about neurological and mental disorders). But Baumane’s rigidly ageless drawings of her human figures can be a stark contrast to the absurdist inclinations of the mind that are indubitably ripe for the grotesque exaggerations of the animated medium. She often withdraws from extreme flights of fancy and morbid surrealism, opting for softly comical images that best compliment her narration; her cousin Linda’s head as a vacuum cleaner voraciously sucking up textbook information to pass a medical exam; Indulis’ DNA double helix materializing like a trophy that becomes a Herculean ladder; Anna as a fish slipping out of Indulis’ grasp; cousin Irbe as a literal pawn on a chess board; and Baumane’s own head detached from her body as a top hat, part of a psychiatrist’s public magic act.
Baumane’s most resolute and significant conclusive chapter turns inward to focus on her own current plight and the gross societal misconceptions of mental illness as a single condition. As this film’s grand goal illuminates the various ways in which it is suppressed or misdiagnosed, it’s a personally elusive definition. Her valiantly cathartic effort finally materializes in a particular entry about the sudden feeling of oppression while on line to buy a few items at the supermarket. As Baumane cuts from the routine task in reality, she returns to that familiar Sisyphean image on the slope. This time, she runs against a conveyor belt away the inexplicable void of fear with the food items turned to over-sized obstacles, like spiky pineapples, sacks of brown rice on the backs of men (a more subtle compliment to the film’s other images of oppression) and live chickens flashing their thighs.
The perilous feeling is intensified through the analogy of a needle poking her chest below her heart, which inflates the pain into an empty razor-edged balloon that tears through her soul. In this dramatizing, though, Baumane resists falling prey to both her own hereditary frailty and traditional treatment from the philosophy of pharmacology; she takes solace in the belief that she must extend kindness to others as a remedy to the consuming voices in her head and pain in her body. By focusing beyond oneself, even if it is simply offering to help her neighbor prepare for a party, Baumane expels the slow carnage that emanates from idleness.
Be sure to check out other Missed Madison Film Festival reviews throughout the day:
James Kreul on Court; Jake Smith on Kilo Two Bravo; and Erik Oliver on Victoria at Madison Film Forum.
James LaPierre on Entertainment at WUD Film Presents.
Four Star Video Podcast‘s discussion of Human Capital.