Rat Film gnaws away at American racism

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      A documentary by Theo Anthony. Rating unavailable

      In Rat Film, a taxonomy of urban life is laid out in vignettes that alternately delight and disgust.

      First-time feature-maker Theo Anthony was looking for doc subjects in his native Baltimore when he came upon a size-large rodent in a trash can and caught some footage on his smartphone. When he called city hall with basic questions about pest control, he encountered rat-catcher Harold Edmond, a public pest-control expert who became a kind of tour guide to urban decay in many other forms.

      The young writer-director brings an anthropologist’s eye to the spectre of Rattus norvegicus and other subspecies overtaking human populations in impoverished places. Alongside his ramblings with the easygoing exterminator are Google Earth meditations on dirty streets, back stories on lab-rat experimentation, and computer-game-style simulations of rat’s-eye views.

      There are also Errol Morris–type visits with odd characters, such as a good ol’ boy who has collected numerous weapons meant for rat-killing, as well as more tangential imagery. Things are loosely pulled together by incantatory narration from voice specialist Maureen Jones, relying on both poetic aphorisms (“Does a blind rat dream?”) and acute social science.

      Things get especially interesting when a study of rat overpopulation is followed by a set of dioramas called The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, handmade in the 1930s and ’40s by Frances Glessner Lee, later dubbed the Mother of CSI. Her presence in the tale—holistic puzzle-solving as opposed to calculated number-crunching by an endless string of white, male scientists—resembles that of Jane Jacobs later in the century: a lone advocate for humanness (good or bad) in the face of relentless urban development.

      Eventually, the filmmaker interposes these seemingly random tidbits with literal maps of Baltimore’s brutally segregated growth until an underlying structure becomes clear. By extension, the rot, and the rat, in America’s soft underbelly is and has always been virulent racism. And this plague will continue until these maps are redrawn by the people themselves.