'Chicken' hatches fresh insights

PBS peeks at people and their fowl friends; 'Stagestruck' shows hopes, fears of actors

A new documentary by Australian filmmaker Mark Lewis recasts the chicken inventively enough to suggest, of all things, the wonder of the most ordinary of birds.

The Natural History of the Chicken (PBS, July 11, check local listings) is fresh and involving. Those of us who have never thought to magnify the virtues of chickens will think again.

We first meet a woman who loves her chicken so much that he has become a household pet who gets a shampoo and blow dry every day and his own car seat.

Next, a New England farmer finds one of her chickens frozen, and discovering a slight pulse, brings "Valerie" back to life with mouth-to-beak resuscitation - a story that made headlines around the world.

A ghastly story tells of a chicken that survived beheading and went on to become a famous sideshow exhibit. Ghastlier still is a visit to an industrial chicken ranch, in which millions of chickens live for a few weeks before going to market. The soundtrack features "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God," played in Christian churches during the Lenten and Easter seasons) to underscore the sacrificial nature of their lives.

In one poignant and insightful story, a country minister attests to witnessing an act of maternal solicitude and courage. A little chicken who longed to be a mother finally got her chance when the pastor built the bird her own coop. When a hawk threatened her tiny family, she rushed to the chicks and covered them with her feathers. The hawk miscalculated the depths of the hen's feathers and missed her. The pastor goes on to talk about how brave the hen was and how the word "chicken" is misused as a taunt (meaning coward).

Not that filmmaker Lewis sentimentalizes the chickens - he doesn't. There's a strong vein of irony running through the film intended to subvert any sentimentality.

In fact, vegetarians beware - Lewis does not suggest that we give up eating chickens. The real hero of the film is a drama professor who owns a farm and raises his own chickens in a particularly humane fashion - letting them run free all day and feeding them well. But his attitude, while respectful of their nature and liveliness, is still utilitarian - "free range" chickens lay "delicious" eggs and are themselves delicious.

"I never set out to make people give up eating chicken," Lewis said in a recent interview. "I'm not an advocate of vegetarianism."

What he did set out to do was take a banal subject and investigate it until its inherent mystery, humor, and uniqueness surfaced.

"I like taking boring subjects and challenging myself to explore them until great stories emerge and great connections are made," he says.

Lewis did not set out to be judgmental, either. Even with the most unusual characters in the film, we never feel that he is putting them down - though he contrasts stories in a way that manages to bring out the ironies of what the humans are saying.

In one case, a man who owns a hundred roosters drives his rural neighbors bonkers with their incessant crowing. The neighbors believe that he is raising the roosters for cockfights, and respond with a lawsuit: A hundred thousand crows a day would be too much for anyone - especially those seeking peace in the countryside.

Many of Lewis's films are about animals - but never wild animals. He is as interested in revealing human beings as he is those animals who spend their lives interacting with people. "I love making films from an animal's point of view," he says.

* * *

Another documentary next week exposes human foibles and strengths. Stagestruck: Crossing the Greenroom (Bravo, 7-9 p.m., Sundays, July 8, 15, and 22) takes a class of actors through the process of learning the craft at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. Along the way, the young actors divulge their experiences, frustrations, and hopes.

These interviews are as fascinating as the acting process itself. The class of 2000 - eight students selected out of thousands who auditioned around the country - is hard-working, devoted, and brave. Whether it's flying on a trapeze or searching their souls, the young actors meet their fears and conquer them.

The film shows the first year as fun and difficult and exciting. The second year becomes very difficult, and the aspiring actors are sorely tried. But the third year opens a door to the world. After their final performances, they graduate. They have learned how to audition, find an agent, and to network.

It's a harsh world out there for actors. Relatively few make a good living at it. But the conservatory hones their skills, teaches them new tools, and gives them the opportunity to work with great actors and directors.

When John Barton, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, teaches a class, the students can put on their resumes that they studied with a legend. Learning to dance or to use the trapeze means learning grace. And it becomes clear that it is the rigor of the program, the discipline itself, that allows these talented young actors freedom of expression.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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