I can’t think of many corners of cinema as alive with innovation & experimentation right now as the documentary & the essay film. Weirdo 2017 titles like Swagger, I Am Not Your Negro, Beware the Slenderman, Casting JonBenet, Love and Saucers, and The World is Mine were some of the most formally & tonally surprising experiences I had with movies all last year. Despite the obvious constraints of working with non-fiction subjects, the digital age post-Herzog documentary is proving to be one of the most vibrantly creative cinematic art forms we have at our disposal. Enter Rat Film, another small scale weirdo doc that’s been garnering buzz for well over a year before finally being released on VOD in recent months. In an elevator pitch, Rat Film can be described as an essay film on the lives & deaths of the rat population in Baltimore and the unlikely ways the comings & goings of those rodents relate to systemic racism in that city’s history. The details of how that essay is laid out are fascinating, however, as Rat Film explores a near-psychedelic multimedia approach to documentary as a craft, to the point where its form is just as significant as its subject. That dynamic honestly feels par for the course for a modern doc, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore. It’s always been a people problem.” So says an affable city worker interviewed here whose entire job is to locate & poison rats. Rat Film profiles a wide range of personalities on the rat-obsession spectrum: pet owners, pest control city workers, amateur rat catchers, musicians who experiment with rat-operated theremins* (Dan Deacon, specifically), etc. These small voices in the larger conversation on Baltimore’s rat overpopulation are interwoven with a history lesson on the political & scientific evils perpetuated by a Dr. Richter, who used rat populations to justify social engineering in bizarre treatises like “Rats, Man, and the Welfare State.” A long history of racial segregation & social experimentation emerges among the film’s kaleidoscopic images of crude computer simulations, Google satellite photos, fireworks, drag racing, snakes, and of course, rats. Lots of rats, from the pink jelly bean infants to the massive, dog-scale behemoths. Instead of neatly explaining how all these disparate elements tie together into a cohesive whole, the movie instead ends on an ambiguous note of science fiction absurdity, leaving its audience to stew in the discomfort.
Admittedly, Rat Film is much drier and not nearly as kinetic as what’s advertised in its trailers. The house cat documentary Kedi is much more impressive in finding ways to document the secret lives of impossibly uncooperative animal subjects; Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog was much bolder in experimenting with the weird tone that can be struck with emotionally-distant, National Geographic-style narration in lines like “Does a blind rat dream?” Rat Film can also frustrate in its stubbornness to justify its own indulgences, such as what a heavily-featured drag racing speedway has to do with Baltimore’s “rat problem” at all. Even with those weak spots in consideration, Rat Film is still one of the stranger reflections on systemic racism, animal behavior, and the emptiness of modern life you’re ever likely to see onscreen, much less all at once. With an ambient Dan Deacon score that jarringly alternates between unexpected images to the cue of static pops, it’s a film that’s held together mostly in its commitment to deconstruction & looseness. There’s enough material here that would be worthy of a no-frills, straightforward documentary, but the experimental cinema approach of Rat Film is much more likely to draw (and maintain) attention than a more traditional work could. It’s also just one piece in a much larger gestalt that suggests there’s even more surprise & experimentation to come in the essay film medium, which is what excites me most.
*In college, I was in a band that used to play shows with a local punk group that featured a rat-operated theremin as a main player, which is a memory I was happy to have this film loosen. I do remember that particular rat meeting an unfortunate end, however. The volume of an average punk show was probably super bad for him (see Rock ‘n’ Roll High School for details there) and I think the heat of their tour van is eventually what did him in. R.I.P., little buddy.