With Errol Morris' most recent full-length documentary two years in the past and with no new film of his creeping above the horizon, Mark Lewis' The Natural History of the Chicken performs suitably as a proxy. It's hard not to draw comparisons between Morris' films and Chicken, frankly: Chicken combines Vernon, Florida's meandering tone, reenactments a la The Thin Blue Line, and bright, vivid visuals that recall much of Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. (The last of these three similarities is a gift from God given the state of current non-fiction cinema aesthetics.) And as obvious from the title, Chicken is about one of Morris' pet topics, animals; Gates of Heaven and numerous episodes of Morris' television series "First Person" have been about the creatures with which we share this planet. In fact, The Natural History of the Chicken is nearly a parody of Morris' work but, well, without the parodistic parts.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair to Lewis. I have not seen his first and most well known film, 1988's Cane Toads, but what I've read about it suggests a similar sensibility to Chicken, and it's more difficult to rebuke him for aping Morris before Morris was quasi-famous. But it's also difficult to overlook the similarities between Lewis and Morris, particularly considering the barefaced quirkiness in the stories Lewis chooses to tell about these eponymous chickens. There's Valerie, a chicken who is saved by the use of, ahem, mouth-to-beak resuscitation. There's the chicken who selflessly uses herself as a shield to protect her baby chicks from a predator. There's the headless but living chicken who became famous enough to tour the States and Europe.

Grammatical purists might reprimand me for writing "the chicken who" rather than "the chicken that" in the previous sentences, but that's Lewis' documentary at its most successful: by showing us the chickens through the eyes of people who personify chickens, we start to view them as nearly human, too. The woman who resuscitated Valerie obviously thinks of Valerie as a person, and even the headless chicken is viewed more as a family member than as a pet or lunch. In fact, the two segments in the film that don't work - a farmer who raises chickens for food and homeowners complaining about the noise of 100 nearby chickens - fail because they contradict the other stories: they show chickens as just typical chickens, not as all but people.

Even the yarns that don't work within the confines of the film are appealing and well told, though, which is perhaps the biggest difference between Lewis and Morris: Morris is most interested in people, while Lewis, at least in Chicken, is most interested in stories. There are stories told by participants in Morris' documentaries, but they're never told simply as stories; Morris puts the stories in his films because they reveal something about the character. In Mr. Death, Fred Leuchter told an anecdote about trying to sell his death machine through the classifieds; it's a hilarious story, yes, but it also speaks to the blasť way Leuchter views the end of life. The stories told in Chicken are funny and poignant, but what do those stories say about the characters who tell them? A woman resuscitated Valerie; she loves her chicken. The homeowners are annoyed the noise of the chickens next store; they hate those chickens. On this front, Chicken is less evocative of Morris than Michael Moore, as the tales laid out in the film do little more than put the people into either the pro-chicken or anti-chicken camp. While that makes The Natural History of the Chicken an entertaining film, and even a pretty good one, it's part of what keeps greatness a beak's length away.

Matthew Prins


Matthew Prins is a film critic for The Christian Century and The Film Forum. He is available to write reviews of films, plays, and infant baptisms. He can be reached at mdprins@yahoo.com.


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