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Arts & Life

In 'Rocks In My Pockets,' A Family History Of Depression And Art

In Rocks In My Pockets, a lively animated documentary billed (a touch reductively) as "a funny film about depression," Latvian-American Signe Baumane describes in detail one of her several attempts to commit suicide after she turned 18.

The minutiae of her planning are more graphic than you might care to hear, and the tone, delivered in Baumane's fetchingly accented voiceover, is breezy and droll. "One must be considerate to one's fellow citizens," she says, her voice rising to comic hysteria edged with existential panic.

So there's provocation here, designed no doubt to head off the hushed reverence or swift moral judgments with which we try to talk this difficult, frightening subject into submission. But there's no lack of sympathy in Baumane's genealogical digging to find out why a bunch of her extended family members died suspiciously young or "failed to live up to their full potential." Coasting over the denials and euphemisms offered by nervous uncles and cousins, Baumane uncovers a gene pool heavily freighted with mental illness, depression and self-annihilation.

Using an inventive blend of stop-motion with papier mache sets that recall the Czech avant-garde surrealist Jan Svankmajer with maybe a touch of Chagall, Baumane reconstructs the life of her grandmother in 1920s Latvia, who was found standing in a river, minus the rocks she'd forgotten to pack for her pockets. After raising eight children as gifted and as cursed with melancholy as she was, she died at age 50 of, family members say, "exhaustion" or "a weak heart."

Baumane begs to differ. She recasts her family saga as a recurring lineage of women with a genetic predisposition to artistry and intellect, coupled with severe depression and/or psychosis. That much seems incontrovertible, but Rocks In My Pockets pushes interpretation further in ways that made me a little queasy.

One after another, aunts and girl-cousins show exceptional early promise in the arts and sciences, only to have their ambitions dashed in the shoals of marriage, motherhood and the hair-raising vagaries of Soviet psychiatry. (This last, trust me, deserves a scary movie of its own.)

Either extreme depression and psychosis afflicted only the females in Baumane's family, or she has left out the men except to fold them into a narrative of domestic oppression and/or incomprehension much like her own passage through marriage to another artist and the birth of her son, all of which led to a severe breakdown. After a spell in a mental hospital, she threw away her pills, divorced her husband and fled (with or without her son, who was cared for by her parents) to New York to pursue her art.

"When my brain was idle," Baumane explains, "it started eating itself." Many artists who fear their demons or dislike who they are when not they're not working will nod their heads in recognition. Yet though she tells her relatives' sad stories with compassion and scrupulous particularity, they all come to tidily mirror her own, and to fuel her palpable rage at the sapping of female creativity by family responsibilities. Repeated enough times, this smacks of special pleading. Some women feel stymied by motherhood; others find creative stimulation in their kids.

Baumane's most poignant insight is that for potential suicides who really mean business, the pain grows so insufferable, or the voices in their heads so persuasive, that they see death as relief, even liberation from their suffering. One relative speaks of killing herself as an act of freedom. Baumane describes one meticulous plan to hang herself as her "way to success."

That has the ring of truth — who among us has not wondered why so-and-so killed him or herself when they had so much to live for? But it's a bitter pill to swallow for those left behind. So it comes as a huge relief to know that this endlessly imaginative artist found another way to save herself from the isolation that prompts so many suicides.

At her lowest ebb, Baumane hauled herself out of her apartment and crossed the hall to volunteer her help with a neighbor's upcoming party.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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