Since the turn of the millennium, cartooning has exploded as a medium for autobiography. The acceptance of comic books as an art form and the possibilities offered by the Internet have made it possible for anyone halfway decent with a drawing tablet to become a graphic memoirist. The Harvey Pekars and Art Spiegelmans have paved the way for the Alison Bechdels, the Marjane Satrapis, the Craig Thompsons, and much more. While Satrapi’s Persepolis was adapted into an animated film, I’ve sometimes wondered when animation as a form of memoir would make a wholehearted leap into the cinema. True, animating (not to mention adding sound) is much more expensive and time-consuming than drawing, but even animation is being made easier with technological advances. If Rocks in My Pockets is a sign of things to come, then it’s quite the encouraging one.
Rocks in My Pockets is writer/director Signe Baumane’s exploration of her and her family’s battles with mental illness over the years. She starts with her grandparents and their struggle to survive World War II and what came after in their native Latvia. Baumane’s grandmother, Anna, is the first character to experience suicidal ideation, standing in a shallow river and contemplating an escape from the demands of her family. It’s Baumane speaking from the present who advises that the best way to drown oneself is to fill one’s pockets with something heavy (like rocks). She actually has a great deal of advice for the best ways to ensure successful suicide, as well as ruminations on what methods are the most “courteous” to others (i.e., which will result in the least amount of cleaning up for whoever finds the body). Thus, right off the bat, the movie establishes a gleefully morbid tone.
The animation is a combination of stop-motion backgrounds and traditionally animated characters. The drawing style and the herky-jerky, pose-to-pose movement strongly hearkens to the style of Bill Plympton (which is no surprise, since Baumane has worked with him before). While the economic strictures of low-budget filmmaking are obvious, the soul of a cartoon is never in how pretty it looks. Baumane’s drawing style, heavy on subjects with caricatured Eastern European features, is perfect for its story, the exaggerated faces carrying every strange mood shift their fortunes take them through.
The real treat, though, is how constant visual metaphors flit across the frame. There is no normal action in the movie — characters’ body parts deform, or they shape-shift entirely, or they’re absorbed by their mutating environment. A woman feeling trapped is shunted into a giant bottle. Suicide is represented by the specter of a grey, stretch-limbed figure enticingly whispering into various characters’ ears. The visuals could have just been wallpaper for Baumane’s omnipresent narration, but they lend the film a deft emotional touch.
In examining how she and five of her family members have tried to deal with depression, schizophrenia, and other mental afflictions, Baumane is asking some very fundamental questions about genetic “destiny.” All the women in her family, it seems, start off looking promising and brilliant, before running straight into a wall. Some of them have more or less lived with it, while others have succumbed to delusion or suicide. Rocks in My Pockets offers no easy answers for “outsmarting DNA” as it puts it, but it is optimistic in the end, and not in a sarcastic way. Well, only in a semi-sarcastic way.