One of my goals this year is to watch the hidden animated films of 2014. I have already reviewed Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Wrinkles, Miniscule: the Valley of the Lost Ant, and Tale of Princess Kaguya. I am planning on seeing Song of the Sea this weekend so look for that review to be coming. All these smaller films have been beautifully animated with unique stories you won’t get from the major studio. I highly recommend taking a look at the reviews and finding the film that looks the most interesting to you.
Today we are going to talk about the adult animated film Rocks in My Pockets. This is an extremely challenging film and it is definitely not for everyone but I’m glad I saw it.
It is the work of Latvian artist Signe Baumane and it is practically a one woman show. She writes, directs, animates the entire film. She even provides the narration which is problematic as she is clearly not a native English speaker and it comes off very robotic. At first I actually thought it was a computer translator not a person.
Rocks in My Pockets is the tale of Signe’s family history of mental illness. It is done using hand drawn and paper mache stop motion. It is brutal, disturbing, vulgar and upsetting at times. That’s why I say it is definitely not for everyone but I also found it moving, raw, honest and beautiful in the way disturbing art can be.
She starts with the story of her Grandmother who tried to commit suicide in a river but did not have rocks in her pockets so she failed in her attempt. I don’t know if I’ve seen a movie that so accurately describes the panic, madness, and strange peace that happens inside the heads of those dealing with mental illness. I have never had that serious of an incident but I have had panic attacks so I related to all her descriptions.
In the former Soviet block nation of Latvia the psychiatrist hands out pills, mainly valium or puts the mentally ill in an insane asylum; thereby either trying to dull or hide the problem. We have come a long way in a sense but we still have a long way to go on the stigma and treatment of mental illness in America today.
Signe then tells the stories of 4 of her cousins and in the most painful segment her own story of battling schizophrenia. Like I said it is disturbing and brutal stuff but I was strangely moved by it. I guess it felt like someone sharing their soul through art and I appreciated that.
The section on post partum depression was interesting. Signe says it is the ‘legitimate’ mental illness. I never thought about it but that is really true even if it is still not treated with the weight and importance it should. There is a very disturbing section where her Grandmother see’s a rabbit eating her own babies and she looks at her 8 children and for a second is envious of the rabbit.
When Signe has her own baby and it is a transcendent experience for her but it doesn’t make the mania inside her go away it was a very poignant moment. Her cousins have the same problems wanting to love desperately but feeling unable to do so.
The animation is gorgeous and constantly daring and surprising the viewer. I loved how it moved and felt like a sketch from inside Signe’s mind. Since all the stories are about women the female bodies are intentionally drawn in a way so they look nude despite being fully clothed (except for one scene where a back is shown). You get a feeling Signe feels naked while drawing this story and that leads to her visuals.
With mental illness Hollywood tends to either make the sufferer scary and erratic or loveable and sweet. Signe does none of that. She tells their story in all its rawness yet still has great love and sympathy for the characters. It defies every cliché you could imagine and that moved me.
It is also unafraid to talk about self harm and other destructive techniques of ‘indulging your insanity not fighting it”. The end of the film she talks about her day to day life and how she has learned to cope with her illness finally summarizing her survival method beautifully.
“I am a working artist. This is my work in progress. I have to continue to live to complete it”
That’s not to say it is perfect because it’s not. Signe’s narration is a huge problem. Like I said it is robotic and very off-putting and since there is no other dialogue that is unfortunate. I don’t know if we needed to hear about every cousin and Signe and the Grandma. It’s a 126 minute movie, pretty long by animated film standards. I would have cut it down to 90 minutes. As it is you leave the experience exhausted. You are stimulated and maybe even inspired but exhausted.
Signe also doesn’t give us any answers. She just tells the story but maybe in a way that is the answer? “You will never be able to walk and talk again without the yellow green and pink pills” said the doctor without giving her a diagnosis. Her sister then says ‘Maybe it’s good to tell everybody so that they know what’s in their genes…It’s in the genes. You were designed to be crazy”
Maybe we just need to let people tell their stories?
Like I said not for everyone but I was moved by it.
The score by Kristian Sensini is also extremely strong and moving.
Overall Grade- B (mainly because the narration is a big stumbling block. If they changed that to a professional actor it would get an A).