J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Rat Film: Baltimore, Rat City

Here in New York, we have a special relationship with rats. They are our neighbors and our co-workers. We have elected rats to represent us in the City Council and up in Albany. We even have a rat for a mayor. Yet, Baltimore seems to think they invented vermin infestation. We will concede they have exponentially more urban blight and social pathologies, but we take a backseat to nobody when it comes to our rat population. Nevertheless, Baltimore takes center stage as the rat capitol of the world in Theo Anthony’s docu-essay Rat Film (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Everybody acknowledges monkey-fishing was a hoax, but in Baltimore, rat-fishing is a real thing. We will watch one intrepid rat-fisher and his bat-man as they try to reel in a nice long Norwegian. You have to give them credit for taking their sport where they can find it. Other sequences lack their focus. Anthony hopscotches around, trying to use rats as a metaphor the rise of the urban underclass. Essentially, it takes him nearly the entire eighty-two minutes to build to the revelation that rat populations tend to be highest in neighborhoods where the majority of residents live below the poverty line.

Rat Film is a classic example of a doc that thinks it is way smarter than it really is. It wants to blame rats on white one-percent privilege, but if you nose around the trash cans of the Upper Eastside, it won’t take you long to find something with a tail. Frankly, Anthony has already been scooped and trumped by Morgan Spurlock of all people, whose entertaining and ultimately terrifying Discovery Channel doc Rats also consisted of a string of loosely connected, observational sequences, but it argues rats are mutating at such an alarming rate, they just might take over the world if we’re not careful.

It is pleasant to spend some time with one of Baltimore’s more philosophical city rat control specialists, but the film’s hodge-podge construction never really adds up the way Anthony believes it does. Instead, it just dissuades viewers from ever visiting Baltimore. Come to New York instead. Surely, there are spots that can accommodate an interest in rat-fishing. Not recommended, Rat Film opens tomorrow (9/15) in New York, at the Lincoln Center.

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