Rat Film ★★★


Certainly one of last year's most interesting documentaries, Theo Anthony's Rat Film admirably bites off just a bit more than it can gnaw. In its organization, it is part of a subgenre that I like to call "radial documentaries." There is a dominant hub concept from which various tangents emerge, like spokes in a wheel. In other words, the starting point is intended to become more complex as the film goes along, instead of the usual approach of explaining a problem or answering a question. Masters of this form include Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, and Harun Farocki.

The trick is to maintain some sort of connection to the hub, and while I absolutely laud the clear ambition and political drive of Rat Film, there is a certain point at which it becomes too capacious for its own good. Anthony's ostensible subject is the history of rat control in the city of Baltimore, and this turns out to be a very rich vein to mine. Various pest control initiatives over the years have gone hand in hand with "social hygiene" and para-eugenics schemes designed to isolate the poor, particularly people of color, and let their neightborhoods die off. In what is probably the film's starkest, most damning coup de grâce, Anthony displays a color-coded map of Baltimore showing "dangerous" or "unstable" (read: African-American) populations in red. This is the literal origin of the term "red-lining."

While Rat Film is wise to use city rat-killer Harold Edmond as its recurring bardic tour guide, it's when Anthony veers too far away from rodentia that the solidity of his rhetoric begins to falter. For instance, the extended portion on crime scene investigation is a bit too far afield, and seems to gesture toward a future film Anthony might make on an admittedly worthwhile subject. Similarly, the discussion of the Google Maps distortion algorithm bears only the slightest relationship to the topic at hand.

One can attempt to draw parallels -- both rats and humans are subject to social control experiments and behavioral engineering -- but at a certain point the homology between people and rats could be used to explicate any phenomenon. As we watch these seemingly unrelated digressions, it's hard not to think about Farocki's brilliant Images of the World and the Inscription of War, a film that opens onto a multitude of topics but always remains in the realm of its primary topic, which is surveillance. Rat Film scurries to and fro, getting into everything, but this occasionally leads the film right into a formalist trap.