Director Mark Lewis is described in his short festival biography as “a master of the eccentric animal documentary.”
Well with The Natural History of the Chicken, he definitely lives up to this title.The film is lively to say the least. We meet an assortment of strange characters that relate to their chickens and roosters in extremely different ways. Starting with a man who moves into a rural farm community to raise roosters, the incessant crowing drives his neighbors mad, literally. One of them began reading The Art of War by Sun Tse for encouragement and allied himself with his fellow townsmen in getting him evicted. The group soon took him to court with suspicion of raising the birds illegally for cockfighting. They even hire someone to sit and record how many times a crow can be heard from the rooster farm — just around 12,000 per day.
Next we shift to the better known fate of chickens — dinner — since there are over 250 million egg-producing hens in America, and over 80 billion eggs were consumed last year. These facts aside, seeing the interior of a slaughter house and the conditions of our future food is quite another thing. In one particular facility where approximately 250,000 hens are held under one roof, space is conserved by caging 6 to 7 at a time, which doesn’t give them enough room to spread their wings. The rows of chickens extends up to 10 feet high. I was most reminded of the energy farm scene in The Matrix.
Next, Lewis makes a wise decision and lightens up a bit, by shifting directions to an eccentric pet owner. With her fiery red hair, she resembles her fluffy Japanese rooster in a bizarrely stereotypical way. I guess what they say is true about owner/pet similarities. This woman was convinced that her cock was a higher being, some beautiful creature deserved of utmost praise.
Perhaps the most fantastic poultry lore came from Mr. and Mrs. Olsen and their “Miracle Mike,” the headless chicken. According to a well documented account of the residents of a small Midwestern town, Mike the chicken was a typical 1950s era member of a chicken ranch, slated for slaughter. Except that the procedure was botched as old man Olsen recounted. As legend has it, sometimes the headless chickens don’t give up the ghost immediately, usually giving a morbid dance before succumbing to death. Mike just refused to drop after his decapitation. In fact, he continued to live without a head for a very long time. So long, in fact, that the Olsens soon took him on the road, earning a living in carnival side shows and exhibitions. Feeding Mike water and liquid grain down his throat, Mr. Olsen kept him alive as a freak of nature — until one day Mike gagged to death.
A final chapter recounts a farmer’s written eye-witness account of one of his Japanese chickens, named affectionately Liza. Liza’s heroic story is one of sacrifice. One day her roost was in perilous danger of a chicken hawk, and without regard to her own safety, Liza flew over the little chicks just as the predator swooped in to capture them. Liza was taken by the hawk, but the chicks lived.
You couldn’t ask for more colorful characters. Lewis’s work here reminds me of the antics of Christopher Guest (Best in Show) — though Guest’s faux documentaries are scripted. With this hilariously eccentric documentary, one wonders if Lewis is perhaps doing the same. Surely these people aren’t really that strange…