“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. Always been a people problem,” says Harold Edmond, a member of the city’s Rat Rubout Program, in Rat Film. Theo Anthony’s thrillingly unconventional documentary, however, argues that, for the last century or more, maybe it’s been both – and that the two are inextricably intertwined. It’s a fascinating hypothesis, and one that’s laid out in daring video-essay form by the filmmaker’s feature debut, which stands as one of this year’s most idiosyncratic, and impressive, non-fiction works.
Anthony’s avant-garde modus operandi is established immediately, with a series of introductory starting-line car-racing images set to Maureen Jones narrating a creation myth: “Before the world became the world, it was an egg. Inside the egg was dark. The rat nibbled the egg and let light in.” At that point, an explosion of flames bursts out of one vehicle’s backside, and the action cuts to murky downward-gazing shots of a rat trapped inside a trash can. Its beady little eyes glowing like fire, the skittering creature attempts to leap out its makeshift prison, all while Jones informs us that a normal adult Norway rat can, on average, jump 32-inches high – and that Baltimore city trash cans, not coincidentally, stand 34-inches tall.
At once expressionistic and drolly funny, this opening sets the stage for Anthony’s subsequent inquiry, comprised of crazily eclectic components: close-up studies of rats; trips through Baltimore via both out-the-car-window glimpses of row houses, and tours of a video game’s simulated 3D city; vignettes concerning Edmond and others who like to pass their time murdering the rodent population; and archival maps, documents and pictures which lay out the relationship between the metropolis’ rat infestation and its troubling racial history. It is, to be sure, a lot to take in. And the fact that Anthony refuses to hold one’s hand through this mélange of modes and materials doesn’t make it any easier to digest, especially since, at least on the surface, it’s sometimes difficult to discern the precise relationships shared between a particular historical incident and contemporary character portrait, or random legislative event and anecdotal aside.
Rat Film, in other words, is not your typical documentary, and its mesmerizing electronica score by Dan Deacon – full of whirring, bleeping and blipping, cacophonous noise, and ominous tonal swells – only enhances its eccentricity. In an era of non-fiction efforts marked by formulaic techniques, Anthony’s approach is enlivening. He creates a swirl of facts, figures and symbolic photographic gestures that locate the ways in which the modern story of Baltimore’s rats is tangled up in the city’s socio-cultural attitudes, and public policy, toward African-Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and anyone else who might be deemed “undesirable.”
As Edmond opines while going about his pest-control work, rats live side-by-side with people who have the least education and resources – those who have “no dreams, no aspirations. Just survival.” That comment connects back to an earlier rumination on whether infant rats – who spend their first two weeks with their eyes closed – dream. The answer, from all accounts, is probably not, given that they’re too busy struggling to avoid being preyed upon by some of the amateur rat assassins Anthony depicts carrying out their nightly duty. One wields a variety of BB guns for headshot kills in alleys. Another duo sticks peanut-butter-coated chicken on a fishing rod line, and then bashes their hooked prey to death with a baseball bat. In this urban wasteland, it’s kill or be killed. Survival of the fittest.
Rat Film doesn’t stay in one place long, scampering to and fro in order to knit a larger tapestry from disparate parts. A 1911 piece of legislation enacted to prevent blacks from moving to predominantly white neighborhoods (and vice versa). A confidential 1951 Rockefeller Foundation report that decries one scientist’s scheme to exterminate all rats (“an almost endless, tedious, highly repetitive and expensive job”) and gives birth to another’s plan to decrease rat numbers by improving the environment in which they breed (a win-win for the community). CGI-enabled shots from a confined rat’s POV. A retailer describing how he feeds his for-sale snakes with hundreds of frozen infant rats (“pinkies”). A man rat-proofing his home so his pet rodents can roam freely. A city official showing off a forensic investigation training facility. A Baltimore resident using his Natty Boh tallboy to estimate the length of a giant battle-scarred rat he once saw.
Most damning of all, a 1933 map created to identify high-risk areas for homeowner’s loans, split into four color-coded regions, with red-lined areas being the diciest. The result was a city informally segregated along racial-economic lines, with only those in the best neighborhoods (i.e. largely white residents) able to attain the financial assistance necessary to escape for the suburbs. Everyone else was left trapped where they were, at the bottom. Anthony then segues to a discussion of a researcher named John B. Calhoun, who in a Gaithersburg, Maryland barn conducted a relevant experiment. Rats were sealed in an enclosed space with unlimited food and water for 16 months, and their behavior was studied. Before long, class-dominant males emerged and sealed themselves off in upper areas with females, leaving the remaining males below to attack the weak, the females to abandon their kids in cruddy nests, and population growth to stagnate. Then, as Jones intones in her chillingly monotone voiceover, “asexual cannibalist rats preyed on their abandoned young.” Calhoun watched this phenomenon (dubbed “the behavioral sink”) play out, a detached deity there to observe the chaos he had wrought.
In Rat Film, the message about Baltimore’s racial and rat dynamics is persistently suggested rather than overtly articulated, and yet impossible to miss. People “just do stuff. It’s more stuff piled upon some more stuff,” muses Edmond as he continues his ceaseless annihilation toil. “New maps. Old maps. Same maps,” says Jones, as contemporary maps (regarding vacant homes, highest arrest ratios, unemployment, etc.) are overlaid on top of the archaic residential security map, revealing depressingly harmonious parallels. It’s a portrait of marginalization and extermination in which nothing changes, much less improves. Waiting to tear themselves apart or be felled by larger predators, all these creatures are rats in a cage. And as suggested by a video game glitch that places a starry sky in the digital Baltimore ground, beneath their existence lies only an abyss.