Like a lot of major urban centers, the city of Baltimore has such a widespread and long-running rodent infestation problem that the locals have come up with all kinds of clever ways to cope. In Theo Anthony’s documentary “Rat Film,” the director occasionally cuts to vignettes of ordinary folks turning vermin into sport. One guy hunts rats in his backyard with a blowgun. Another puts sliced turkey and peanut butter on a hook and casts his fishing line into dark alleys. Some experimental musicians drop the beasts into wired-up resonant chambers and let their little feet make melodies. In each case, the Baltimoreans find themselves in a kind of uneasy symbiosis with pests.
“Rat Film” doesn’t have a primary narrative thread, per se — just more of a motif. The movie is made up of fascinating fragments, organized around the theme of rat-control in Baltimore. Picture a half-dozen or so loosely related short films, cut-and-pasted together into a dazzling collage. Working in the spirit of Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Werner Herzog (minus the narration), Anthony free-associates in “Rat Film,” using the flexible framework of the essay-film to contain any topic that interests him, even if just for a few minutes.
It’s not always rats that catch his attention, either. “Rat Film” includes scenes shot at a Maryland drag-strip, utilizing a hazy slo-mo that makes the thunderous clamor and spectacle of auto-racing look like something bubbling up from the American subconscious. Anthony also spends several segments covering a famous collection of miniature crime-scene models, still used to help train police detectives and CSIs. The purpose of these digressions isn’t always clear. Or, when it comes to one lingering shot of a chubby little boy at the track, the point comes off a little harsh, as though Anthony were comparing and contrasting one doughy white kid with the city’s feral, disease-carrying animals.
For the most part though, the connections “Rat Film” makes are exciting, challenging, and maybe not as oblique as they may initially seem. A good chunk of the movie is about Baltimore’s embarrassing history of racial segregation, via decades-old zoning ordinances that kept the city’s “red-lined” neighborhoods poor, and kept its residents from escaping to more gentrified areas. One of the most fascinating recurring characters in the documentary is a philosophical government pest-control worker, who seems to be taking a subtle dig at both his clients and his town when he says, “There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.”
Anthony illustrates the injustice of Baltimore’s racism in clever ways, in short segments that show a virtual reality tour of the city from a rat’s point-of-view, and others that peek around the city via Google Earth-style surveillance cameras. In the former, the blocky renderings of real skyscrapers level the distinctions between “desirable” and “undesirable” locations. In the latter, the way that facial-blurring software can’t always distinguish between people and inanimate objects makes the whole idea of dividing people by appearance more ludicrous.
“Rat Film” doesn’t really make an impassioned political statement. Instead, Anthony assembles striking, allusive pictures and sounds into a one-of-a-kind experience, meant to provoke thought. From the jarring popping noises that dot the soundtrack to the frequent images of rats leaping at the camera, this movie keeps the audience on edge, and then beguiles and befuddles with scenes that are absorbing to watch but not immediately explicable. What’s up with the shot of homeless people drunkenly singing on a park bench? What are we supposed to make of the man who plays a wooden flute while a fat rodent crawls on his shoulder? And then there’s the question that’ll keep viewers chewing on “Rat Film” long after it’s over: In the multiple scenes of snakes devouring baby mice, who — metaphorically speaking — is each animal supposed to be? [A-]
Rat Film debuted at the Locarno Film Festival last year, and had its U.S. premiere last week at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri. It will be playing next at SXSW in Austin, Texas, beginning this weekend.