Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The doc of the year? Very probably. Theo Anthony's RAT FILM is this -- and much more.


As challenging, surprising and satisfying as movies get -- narrative or documentary -- this new one from writer/director Theo Anthony would be a shoo-in for an Oscar except that it will probably be "too much" for our prestigious Academy members: dark, uncompromising and not nearly feel-good enough to take home that coveted and, in this case, much deserved Best Documentary prize.

Its title is RAT FILM, and it's about, yes, the much beloved species we know as rats. However, because the movie deals equally and brilliantly with the subjects of race and redlining in Baltimore, Maryland, it could as easily have been titled Race Film. As for the manner in which it bring us Baltimore, the documentary makes a terrific companion piece to perhaps the best television series ever created, The Wire.

How Mr. Anthony (shown at right) manages to blend rats, race and Baltimore so thoroughly and felicitously seems to TrustMovies little short of miraculous. Using history, statistics, archival photos and newspaper clippings, coupled to a brilliant narration that does no special pleading but simply states some very interesting facts, while lining these up with other facts/statistics from the past and the near-present, he allows us to reach conclusions that should prove awfully hard to shake.

But how do rats fit into all this? They should and they do, but I'll let you discover the answers to that question yourself.

Baby rats don't open their eyes for two weeks, we learn early on the film, "but does a blind rat dream?" Anthony wonders. This is but one of many intriguing questions raised in the film. Another -- Do rats go to heaven? -- is asked by the rat exterminator (Harold Edmond, shown below) we meet and spend a good deal of time with. Edmond doesn't hate rats the way some of the other would-be exterminators (shown further below) do.

Why this awful hatred? The doc doesn't ask this question directly, but we cannot help but feel its presence all along the way. And the occasional introduction of rat lovers/rat keepers and their "pets" simply reinforces the question. There is one shot of a rat licking his owner's bald head (in a similar way to which my cat licks my increasingly balding dome) that should leave you charmed and delighted.

Along the way we learn the importance of the Norway Rat to lab tests and experimentation, via the work of of one, Curt P. Richter, even if we do begin to question some of the ideas of Richter and his disciples. Well before it is finished, in fact, the movie will have you viewing the rat as one of the great anti-heroes, having undergone such hatred and aggression over time that you'll find it difficult not to root for the (relatively) little guy.

So we get rats and the Welfare State, rats and NASCAR, rat-hunting for sport, rat history/statistics and lots more, and we even meet "the Mother of CSI," as one interviewee describes the odd woman who gave over her life to criminal investigation. And though, for an hour or more, we don't see any actual killing of rats (just the threat of this), when, in a sudden burst of violence, we do, via some very smart editing, the effect is both necessary and jolting.

The redlining of entire neighborhoods by Baltimore's banks back in the 1930s, and recent statistics about those same neighborhoods will set your mouth agape (such stunning progress has Baltimore made!), while the film's finale offers a scene of sheer, unadulterated irony, amusement and slow-growing horror.

The music (by Dan Deacon) is sensational, too -- so good, in fact that a soundtrack album is said to be coming soon, while the film's smooth, ever-so-slightly indignant narration is splendidly voiced by Maureen Jones. I came away from this doc feeling quite differently about rats than I did going in, and I suspect you might, too.

You'll get your chance to find out when Rat Film -- running 82 minutes and released by The Cinema Guild and Memory -- opens this Friday, September 15, in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; in Baltimore at the Parkway Theatre; in Vancouver at the Film Center and in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque. In the weeks to come it will open elsewhere around the country. Click here and scroll down to view all upcoming playdates.

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