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It all started about two months ago. I went to check my phone messages one evening and there's a message from one Mr. Jason Royal, internet Rock Star and proprieter of Completing the Square, letting me know the importance of something coming soon to my local PBS affiliate. That event was a screening of Mark Lewis's 2000 documentary, The Natural History of the Chicken, which I do believe he cited as being the "greatest thing ever filmed."
Somehow, the event slipped my mind that weekend, and I was a bit distraught that I had forgotten to tape the show. I asked Mr. Royal if he had a copy on tape, but he did not have access to it at the time. I recall lamenting about not having seen it to my lady friend, who later suprised me with a gift of a VHS copy of said documentary. I was quite elated, to say the least. Now, having witnessed this marvel of cinema, I am now a believer. This is one of the finest things ever to be committed to celluloid; one of the most entertaining 57 minutes you'll ever spend in front of a television screen.
Chicken is not a cut-and-dry, run-of-the-mill documentary you'd expect to see in a high school science class. Sure, it's informative, but moreover, it's entertaining. Taking a page from legit documentarian Errol Morris (FAST, CHEAP, and OUT OF CONTROL) and the Mockumentary style of Christopher Guest (BEST IN SHOW), Chicken comes at you with several tales of people and their experiences with the domesticated fowl. Our segments go as follows:
- There's the tale of Valerie, formerly known as #7. After a snowfall puts her and her kin in peril, #7 is frozen stiff and not much hope is given for her. Her brave owner administers CPR, which she had learned by watching medical dramas, to the poor hen, complete with mouth-to-beak resuscitation. #7 is nursed back to health, getting the royal treatment in the house. When finally returned to her peers, #7, rechristened Valerie (you know, for her valor), has a full, lucid conversation with her fellow hens. Or at least her owner would lead us to believe so.
- We meet the members of a rural community who have their peace interrupted by the introduction of a cockfigher breeder. Their quiet neighborhood soon becomes host to one hundred angry, crowing roosters and their handler. The sounds of crowing (measured at nearly 12,000 daily) keeps them awake at night and basically drives them up the wall. After reading The Art of War one of the denizens rallies up his neighbors to take action, and a class action lawsuit drives the majority of the offending cocks out of the area.
- The tale lightens up a bit with the introduction of Karin Estrada and her faithful companion Cotton, an exotic Japanese hen. Karin not only takes her hen swimming with her, going so far as to carefully blow dry her feathers at the end of their dip, but pampers her with luxury meals and a couch potato's life. Of course, since a hen can be a bit difficult to potty train, she fashions special diapers for her pet to wear, as to not soil the home's decor.
- We go back in time for a bit to tell the tale of Miracle Mike, who has been the source of urban legend for decades, but actually did exist. Mike, as you may know, exemplified the cliche about chickens running around with their heads cut off - Mike had no head. This curiosity of nature became a sideshow attraction that drew crowds all over the Uninted States and England in the 1940's, until an unfortunate day when the poor fellow met his demise due to a lack of foresight by his handlers.
- Finally, we meet Liza, a diminuitive hen who proves that calling a coward "chicken" may indeed be a bit of a misnomer. Due to her size and different appearance, Liza has a hard time fitting in with the other chickens in her home, and her owner makes every effort he can to help her out, finally constructing her own private henhouse for her to raise her chicks. In a story of courage and valor, Liza risks her own life to protect her offspring from the looming terror of a circling chicken hawk, and yet lives to tell the tale.
Between these segments, there are facts regarding the poultry industry shown on screen, interspliced with footage of egg-laying hens and the sorting of chicks. The film doesn't appear to take a stance or have an agenda; rather than play up the horrors of the slaughter of chickens or give a rousing round of support for eating poultry it gives this information as a straightforward segue between the larger sequences.
Yes, The Natural History of the Chicken is far more entertaining than you would come to expect. Clocking in at less than an hour, this Sundance Film Fest favorite leaves you yearning for more. Top it all off with some fun shots of the "Chicken-mobile", a fried Chicken delivery vehicle made up to look like a giant Rooster, complete with a soundtrack fans of RAISING ARIZONA will find familiar, and you've got a winner of a film.
Just don't expect to hear "The Chicken Dance", which truly belonged on the soundtrack to this one.
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