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Film Reviews Review: Rat Film uses rodents as a model for civilization

Baby rats in Theo Anthony’s documentary Rat Film.

MEMORY

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Rat Film
Written by
Theo Anthony
Directed by
Theo Anthony
Starring
Theo Anthony and Dan Deacon
Genre
Documentary
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2017

Our language, beautifully idiomatic as it is, is obsessed with rats. We are gym rats, office rats, lab rats, pack rats, hood rats. We breed, as the song goes, like rats. And we are, as another song goes, like rats in a cage, despite all our rage. We're all of us upwardly mobile professionals trapped in a rat race. We express contempt with "rat fink," "rat face," and we might even call someone, in a cartoonish Cagney scowl, a "dirty rat." The French, too, may be s'ennuyer comme un rat mort ("bored as a dead rat"). Human and rodent feel necessarily entwined, not only on the level of civilization, but at the level of metaphor and imagination.

Theo Anthony's low-key astounding essay-doc Rat Film doesn't so much disentangle the connections between humans and rats, but rather necessarily re-entangles this relationship. It uses rats – those pesky disease vectors – as a model for civilization. Specifically, Rat Film burrows into the grimy rodent-infested underbelly of Baltimore, Md., America's so-called "Charm City."

"There ain't never been a rat problem in Baltimore," says old-timer exterminator Harold Edmond, serving up the film's thesis statement. "It's always been a people problem." Anthony uses Baltimore's rodent microcosm to examine the city's broader racial dynamics, mapping the ways in which density of rat infestations reflect Baltimore's racially segregated zoning bylaws. He also looks at the rat's central role in medical testing at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University, where a rat's easy-to-handle size and short lifespan make it an "ideal model" for studies of aging and growth. Further, "the rat's cultural position as a pest make it less sympathetic of an experimental subject than other animals," coos the chilly voiceover track. Unlike Morgan Spurlock's recent doc Rats, Anthony's film complicates the cultural position of the pest instead of merely exploiting it to bait the squeamish and easily grossed-out.

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Rat Film is most compelling when it moves out of the history of Baltimore's civic-planning and pest-control schemes and settles on its denizens, both human and rodent. We're presented with the film's most poignant and unlikely image when we meet two men in folding chairs, in the middle of a deserted street. They're fishing, with rods, reels and hooks baited with peanut butter, hoping to snare rats. Another vigilante rat-catcher presents himself as a soldier of fortune, laying out his heavy-duty pellet-gun arsenal, eyes wide with excitement. (In its evocation of Baltimore as a kind of man-against-beast frontier town, Rat Film evokes the extreme dog-catching sequences of Florent Tillon's underdistributed 2010 doc Detroit Ville Sauvage, another arty actuality about an American metropolis in natty crisis.) In another scene, a middle-class family attempts to rat-proof their living room by blocking off entrances with huge HDTV boxes.

In places, Anthony enlivens his more straight-ahead docu-footage with glitchy video-game renderings of Baltimore, repeating the theme of maps overlaying maps like onion skins, building up the historical and social meanings of a city. But instead of distracting, these sojourns into experimentation add to Rat Film's journalistic density. This is a film abounding in information, lively characters and heady, intermittently intoxicating ideas, tangled together like a knotty rat king.

There are points when Anthony's narration, delivered by a Siri-sounding female voiceover artist, swells in its rhapsodic pretension. But even these outbreaks of idea become a part of Rat Film's charm. It's as if Anthony (or his film) were merely thinking aloud, in his most severe, ponderous Werner Herzog (or Chris Marker) voice. It's better, after all, for a film to feel too bloated with ideas than to abjure them altogether. This eager braininess, combined with his capacity for formal invention, distinguish Theo Anthony as a young filmmaker (and thinker) well worth watching.

Rat Film opens on Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, before screening at the Calgary International Film Festival on Friday and Sept. 26.

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