London International Animation Festival | 'Rocks in My Pocket'
Animation shares with puppet theatre the potential of limitless possibilities. Unrestricted by the mundane realities of lighting a set, building a prop, paying a key grip or ensuring an actor doesn’t die when you drop an anvil on him, an animated film is constrained only by the skill and imagination of the animator. Perhaps it was my understanding of such potential in the medium that made me find ‘Rocks in My Pockets’, a feature film premiered at this year's London International Animation Festival, something of a disappointment. It is far from a bad film but it seems very conservative in its ambitions, particularly when compared to its peers.
Directed by Latvian/American animator Signe Baumane, ‘Rocks in My Pockets’ is the autobiographical tale of one artist’s struggle with crippling depression – a struggle she discovers has plagued the women of her family for generations. The film’s title is derived from a tale told to her about her grandmother, who one day was discovered in a river, attempting to drown herself. She was persistent but unsuccessful, for no matter how many times she threw herself underwater she would float back up again. She didn’t put rocks in her pockets, you see. This scene (and the entire film, in fact) is narrated by Signe Baumane in a wry, heavily accented voice. Compared to her grandmother, Signe explains, she’s the better planner, and has planned out her own suicide to the smallest detail, including the use of adult diapers to spare her loved ones the trouble of clearing up a mess.
These opening minutes establish the tone of the film very effectively: brutally honest, attentive to detail and with a self-deprecating sense of humour. If anyone wanted an insight into the painful world of mental illness, you could do worse than watch this film. After the grandmother’s story is told we move on to the troubles of the next generations, and here we begin to miss the stronger narrative thread that the grandmother’s tale offered us. At times this feels like an anthology of misery, and it starts to feel a little repetitive.
The animation itself is pretty but simplistic. Drawn characters move across sculpted backgrounds, with the occasional cameo of a stop-motion animated figure. The character design is basic, with strong lines and vivid colours and expression, but little detail. With the odd exception (such as a psychiatrist transforming into a frog) there are precious few flights of fancy, and much of the visuals are grounded in a consistent reality. This does add a gravitas to the film, a feeling that the horrors that persecute the mentally ill are in a way as mundane as the houses in which they live, and far more difficult to escape. Yet ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity. Signe Baumane has worked with American animator Bill Plympton, whose films can best be described as hallucinatory orgasms as experienced by a rabid badger. There were moments in this long, brave but exhausting film that I longed for such whimsy, such chaos, such surprise.
'Rocks in My Pocket'
Directed by Signe Baumane