The Natural History of the Chicken

Australian documaker Mark Lewis provides an inspired look at that most seemingly innocuous of barnyard critters in "The Natural History of the Chicken." Mixing coverage of the commercial chicken industry with bizarre stories of people and their poultry, this humorous feature should prove a favorite both in festival showings and TV slots.

Los Angeles-based Australian documaker Mark Lewis, whose singularly droll perspective on man’s rapport with the animal kingdom first turned heads in the minor classic “Cane Toads,” provides an inspired look at that most seemingly innocuous of barnyard critters in “The Natural History of the Chicken.” Mixing coverage of the commercial chicken industry with bizarrely fascinating stories of people and their poultry, this warmly humorous hour-long feature should prove a favorite both in festival showings and TV slots.

Dedicated to Italian Renaissance natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi, who viewed the chicken as part of a much larger order of things, Lewis’ documentary places the fowl in question within the context of American consumer spending of $40 billion per year on chicken products. But more distinctively, he also examines the personality of the bird — from the gregarious, chatty types to the quiet submissive ones — and the many facets of people’s relationship to it.

Almost as interested in odd human behavior as he is in his feathered subject, Lewis gets close to some eccentric chicken-fanciers in his customarily amusing style. He starts with a Florida matron who wishes the same joy on others that she’s found with her pampered pet Cotton, which bathes with her in the pool, inspires poetic odes, gets shampooed and blow-dried and wears a specially designed rooster-diaper to protect the furniture.

One delightfully reconstructed incident chronicles the near-death experience of Valerie, a Maine hen found frozen stiff during a blizzard. The owner took the bird inside intending to bury it later. But the discovery of a faint heartbeat led to mouth-to-beak resuscitation, a week’s convalescence in a crib in front of the TV, subsequent media attention and interviews with an animal communicator which reveal that Valerie was called back as she moved toward the light.

Even more celebrated in its time was Miracle Mike, a Colorado chicken that lived for more than two years in the 1940s after its head was cut off, traveling to carnivals around the country until it choked on mucus one night in a hotel room.

The most touching story is told by a pastor, who considers the irony of the term “chicken” being used to indicate cowardice and argues that chickens have souls and are capable of logic and reasoning. His story — grippingly recreated with all the dramatic tension and narrative structure of a mini-feature — concerns Lisa, a hen initially believed unable to produce chicks. When she finally does deliver, Lisa becomes the poster girl for good motherhood, willing to sacrifice her own life to protect her babies from a predatory hawk.

The weird-and-wonderful aspect of the filmmaker’s approach is echoed in the slightly surreal, color-drenched visuals, gorgeous shots of chickens against vibrant pastoral landscapes and imaginative use of music. Alongside the individual stories, which show a rich variation of tone, Lewis intersperses all the basic facts on chickens’ diet, mating habits, communication and social behavior, as well as taking in the uglier reality of battery farms, hatcheries and slaughterhouses, juxtaposing the down-to-earth pragmatism of a free-range farmer with the inhumane practices of a poultry processing plant.

The Natural History of the Chicken

Production: A Mark Lewis Radio Pictures production in association with PBS, Channel 4, Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Produced, directed, written by Mark Lewis.

Crew: Camera (color), Steve Arnold; editor, Robert DeMaio; music, Mike Muhlfriedel; art director, Daniel Nyiri; sound, Max Hensser. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2001. (Also in Toronto Film Festival, Real to Reel.) Running time: 56 MIN.

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