Bonus Features: Chicken People (2016)

Our current Movie of the Month, 2016’s Chicken People, is a fluff piece documentary about eccentrics who breed chickens for Best in Show competitions, produced by Country Music Television’s filmmaking wing CMT Docs.  It’s closer in quality to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, but the volume and variety of chickens on display is borderline surreal at feature length.  This is especially striking in the film’s fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition.  Chicken People does its best to highlight the personalities of the people who breed & manicure these exquisite show-chicken specimens, but those imperfect human masters cannot compete with their pampered little dinosaurs for pure entertainment value.  Chickens are such an omnipresent American staple that we rarely take the time to consider how absolutely bizarre they are as a species, and it was satisfying to see a documentary take the time to examine their physical features and wider cultural footprint in intense detail.

While chickens frequently play small roles in movies like Moana, Return to Oz, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Herzog’s Stroszek, it’s rare to find a film that’s entirely about chickens, allowing the strange little beasts to take center stage.  They’re largely overlooked as a worthwhile cinematic subject.  However, Chicken People isn’t entirely alone in giving chickens their full due on the silver screen.  Here are a few more recommended titles if you were hypnotized by the immaculately groomed birds in our Movie of the Month and want to see more movies where chickens are the star of the show.

The Natural History of the Chicken (2000)

The most obvious pairing for a chicken-themed double feature would be the made-for-TV documentary The Natural History of the Chicken, which could just as easily been titled Chicken People without any major changes to its content.  Like Chicken People, The Natural History of the Chicken is a wonderfully quirky documentary about the nature and culture of chickens in America; it just happened to be produced for PBS instead of CMT.  Instead of solely covering the Best-in-Show beauty pageants documented in our Movie of the Month, Natural History focuses on a wider range of domestic chicken phenomena: chickens being frozen in winter and thawed back to life, chickens with the self-sacrificing bravery of Christ on the cross, neighbors being sued for their obnoxious collection of screeching roosters, chickens intently watching opera on television, etc.  The film shares the same fascination with the tiny-dino birds that makes Chicken People so hypnotic (including photographing the beasts in pitch-black voids to emphasize their strange physiques), as well as its reality-television patina as a work of art.

Because The Natural History of the Chicken was produced over two decades ago, its version of reality-TV filmmaking is more of the Rescue 911 variety, where lightly fictionalized “real” incidents are conveyed in dramatic re-enactments instead of heavy post-production editing.  That quality only adds to the film’s delicate surrealism, though, which is also emphasized in its cut-and-paste green screen effects.  There’s something about its low-key absurdism that reminded me heavily of David Byrne’s Americana portrait True Stories, which I mean as the highest compliment.  And it even comes with its own animal-documentary pedigree behind the camera that makes that kind of lofty comparison somewhat reasonable.  Director Mark Lewis is best known for his 1980s documentary about the disastrous introduction of Cane Toads to Australia (Cane Toads: An Unnatural History), but he’s also got aesthetically similar pieces on dogs, cats, cows, and rats.  I’m all in on watching his entire catalog after falling in love with this chicken doc. It’s incredibly endearing, and maybe even bests Chicken People as the pinnacle of the chicken documentary genre.

Chicken Park (1994)

Speaking of repurposing the title Chicken People, I think it’d also be a great name for a horror film, like a poultry version of Alligator People.  We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility.  Even in their pampered beauty-contest version, the edible little dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature feature monstrosities – especially since the ones we’ve already got are such a weak crop.  The chicken-person gag in Freaks is great, but it’s only a brief coda at the end of the film instead of the main thrust of its plot.  The bad-taste musical Poultrygeist does feature some great chicken-person gore at feature length, but is outright unwatchable thanks to Lloyd Kaufman’s borderline reactionary-Conservatism as a supposed equal-opportunity-offender.  So, the only genuine option for feature-length chicken horror is not a Cronenbergian creature feature about humanoid chicken hybrids but rather a straight-to-Italian-TV horror comedy that was hated even in its time by critics & audiences alike.

As you might have guessed from its title and year of release, Chicken Park is a feature-length parody of Jurassic Park, featuring chickens instead of dinosaurs.  It strives to be a vulgar ZAZ knockoff but lacks the necessary energy or specificity of humor to really excel as such. Still, it’s mostly cute-bad (especially in its Night of the Lepus dino-chicken effects) as opposed to the offensive-on-purpose bad vibes of Poultrygeist (give or take a few unnecessary, unforgivable indulgences in homophobic slurs).  It also earns minor bonus points for heavily featuring Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma in a bit part as a Vampira/Morticia Addams spoof (among other one-off parodies of non-dino movies of the 90s like Home Alone, Pretty Woman, and Rambo), which is some A+ casting, but not nearly enough to carry the entire film.  Chicken Park is only recommendable for being the one halfway-watchable, feature-length chicken horror of note.  We deserve better chicken-themed schlock. They’re terrifying! Close-up at least.

Chicken Run (2000)

It’s a little misleading to claim that there is too little chicken content across the broad cinematic landscape.  There is one specific area where chickens have been allowed to run wild: children’s films. Besides being featured as comical side characters in films like Moana and Return to Oz, there are also a few high-profile kids’ movies with a main cast of animated chickens: 1991’s Rock-a-Doodle, 2005’s Chicken Little, 2015’s Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-cellent Adventure, etc.  I’m too allergic to modern computer animation to suggest most of those titles as a Chicken People pairing, but since the majority of movies about chickens appear to be made for children, I also can’t ignore that end of the spectrum entirely.  My way of meeting the criterion halfway is in finally checking out Chicken Run, a traditional stop-motion animated feature from Aardman Studios, home of Wallace & Gromit.  Raking in $200mil at the box office, it’s to date the most commercially successful stop-motion film of all time.  Those aren’t Minions numbers, exactly, but it’s still encouraging that a traditionally animated feature was able to succeed at all in a post-Pixar world.  The popularity of chickens in children’s media is apparently just that strong.

Chicken Run is an animated homage to classic prison escape dramas like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke and, most significantly, The Great Escape.  It details a coop full of cowardly British hens being hyped up by a brash American rooster (unfortunately voiced by Mel Gibson) into escaping from their death-trap farm before they’re dismembered and packaged into meals.  A children’s film about solidarity and collective action in the face of seemingly insurmountable oppression, it’s a hilariously dark and daringly political work – especially in an era when most kids’ media settles for celebrities making empty pop culture references in unenthused voiceover.  Chicken Run is maybe a little too dialogue-heavy to stand out as the very best Aardman has to offer, as the studio most excels at translating Silent Era physical comedy to the stop-motion medium.  Still, it’s tactile and emotionally complex in a way most post-Pixar CG animation isn’t allowed to be.  Besides, it likely is the best narrative feature film entirely about chickens, regardless of medium or studio.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Hanna made Boomer,  Britnee, and Brandon watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).

Hanna: Sometimes the universe has to shove you into art before you’ll pay any attention to it; this was the case with me and Pedro Almodóvar. I vaguely remember my mother talking about Broken Embraces and admiring Penélope Cruz on the poppy-covered poster for Volver when I was a teenager, and The Skin I Live In floated across my radar when I was in the habit of seeking out macabre media as a protest against the Midwestern values of Minnesota, but for some reason I wasn’t compelled to watch any of those movies. I didn’t see an Almodóvar film until my first year of college, by force, in my Spanish Media class; that film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and it shoved me (very happily) into the Almodóvar canon.

The primary Woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown is Pepa Marcos (Carmen Maura), a TV actress and film dubber. Her ex-lover and co-dubber, Ivan—an older, spineless lech with a mahogany voice—left her a week ago; he is going on a trip (with another woman), and is asking her to pack him a suitcase. Pepa is inconsolable. She wolfs down sleeping pills, spiking her gazpacho with barbiturates. She sleeps through the alarms of the 30-odd clocks littered around her apartment. She accidentally lights her bed on fire. She leaves Ivan desperate voicemails, insisting that she has something important that they need to discuss and becoming increasingly irate. No matter what Pepa does, she is always just catching up to Ivan’s ghost: finding that he left the studio a minute before she arrives, or that he called her apartment just before she walked in the door. When the phone does ring for Pepa, Ivan is never on the other line. Eventually, through a series of fraught coincidences, chaos seeps into Pepa’s apartment through her friend Candela, Ivan’s ex-wife Lucía, Ivan’s son Carlos, and Carlos’s fiancée Marisa, shattering the spell of her obsessive despair over Ivan.

Of the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, Women on the Verge is probably the lightest fare – the least political, the least subversive, and the least confessional. It never seems to bubble over in the way that madcap comedies usually do, even in its final stretch (which is still, in my opinion, a jaunty little thrill ride). Regardless, there is something about this film that totally entrances me. First of all, for being a breezy, highly stylized black-comedy melodrama, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was confoundingly successful; it was the highest-grossing Spanish film of all time when it was released and is still Almodóvar’s 4th highest grossing film (not adjusting for inflation, which would boost it up even higher). The cinematography is characteristically gorgeous, tactile and vibrant, and some of the images are still splintered into my brain from the first watch (specifically, the scenes of Pepa and Ivan dubbing Johnny Guitar and Pepa looking out of her apartment through that huge slatted peephole). I’m consistently delighted by the film’s comic serendipity: the near-misses, close calls, and coincidental injuries (shoes and records are the universe’s guided missiles, launched unintentionally by people in fits of rage or despair). If nothing else, this movie has given me the Mambo Taxi driver, one of the purest and most absurd characters in cinema; his attention to the provisions of amenities in his taxi was genuinely touching.

One of my favorite things about Almodóvar is his embrace of multiple genres; he has touched comedy, drama, autobiography, and horror, and his films are usually a chaotic blend of two or three. In the case of Women on the Verge, I do think the comic elements could have been pushed even further. Britnee, what did you think about the balance of comedy and drama in Women on the Verge? Did the tone work for you, or do you wish the film had pushed more in one direction or the other?

Britnee: Right now, we are all living in a pretty dark world, and my primary escape from all the insanity has been reality TV and, of course, movies. For some reason, I’ve been finding myself binging old made-for-TV Lifetime films with pretty intense plots. While I thought these films were helping me unwind and relax, I was actually subconsciously adding to my already high stress levels. Women on the Verge basically got me out of this horrible funk because of it’s wonderful blend of the drama that I crave while giving me the light comedy that I so desperately needed. From the Mambo Taxi driver (“Thank You For Smoking”) to Candela’s moka pot earrings, there are many eccentricities sprinkled throughout the film that brought me so much joy and laughter. And don’t even get my started on how much I loved that kitschy apartment setup! I definitely think Women on the Verge leans more towards being a comedy than a drama, but I actually admire how it holds back from going too far in a comic direction. It somehow makes all the funny moments more special and memorable.

Pepa is constantly surrounded by the mysterious Ivan, be it through the many characters who pop up in her life who have various connections to him or through her own obsession with finding him to tell him “something.” The drama that Ivan brings into her life without him actually physically being a part of her life is the kind of drama that I find fascinating. Boomer, do you think the film would have benefited from having Ivan physically appear in more scenes? Like, if there were even more scenes that focused on what Ivan was up to while Pepa was going through all of her apartment-contained insanity?

Boomer: I prefer Ivan as—as Hanna puts it—a ghost in the film. There’s something so smarmy and gross about him, from the way he distances himself emotionally from his son and his lover by giving them autographed photos as if they were fans, to his callous movement from one lover to the next with careless disregard for the damage he leaves in his wake, to his uneven application of secrecy (Pepa clearly never knew about Lucía or Carlos, indicating that Ivan intentionally hid the fact that he was a divorced father, while Paulina Morales clearly knows who Pepa is from the moment the latter walks into the former’s office, treating her with open hostility). He’s such a cad that he has no shame about asking his former lover to pack a suitcase for him but can’t face her in order to collect it. The fact that, as you mentioned, he brings so much drama into the piece without being present for much of it is part of the fun for me. He’s mysterious: a clear heel in every way, and yet able to be such a focal point of the attention of women are all too good for him, but who find themselves caught in his wake against their better judgment. If there was one thing that I wanted more of, however, it was Pepa’s role as the mother of the Crossroads Killer in her TV show. What is that program even about?

Brandon, you and I have spoken in the past about the relationship between comedy and mystery and how they both occupy the same kind of space in the mind: the set-up of joke and punchline is not entirely dissimilar from mystery and revelation, and there’s actually a fair amount of that at play here. Although this is first and foremost a comedy, the mystery element (who is Ivan going away with?) is still omnipresent. The relationship between planting and payoff may have its most triumphant example on film here, as we first see Ivan dubbing over Sterling Hayden’s voice in Johnny Guitar while we can’t hear Joan Crawford’s dialogue at all, only to later see Pepa in the studio performing her half of the scene, not against silence as Ivan had, but against his voice. Even in this, he is a ghost. What were your two favorite planting-and-payoff revelations here, comedic and mysterious?

Brandon: I love the idea of breaking this film down into individual moments & punchlines, because it’s practically a feature-length pilot for a sitcom.  I could happily watch these characters burst into & out of Pepa’s candy-coated apartment forever, even if they were dealing with more mundane day-to-day conflicts than the high-stakes farce staged here.  It’s comforting to know that Almodóvar heavily reuses the same actors & crew for most of his pictures, because it was heartbreaking to leave these outrageous women behind just because the credits rolled.  Ivan, I could live without.  If he were made to be even more of a ghost and was only talked about but never shown, the movie would have worked just was well.

My favorite payoffs—both comedic and mysterious—resulted from the Hitchcockian tension of the poisoned gazpacho.  When Pepa first loads Chekhov’s Blender with gazpacho & sleeping pills, her intentions are opaque.  She’s distraught enough over Ivan’s infidelity that it appears she’s planning to kill herself in a deliciously complex manner, but it’s later revealed to be a long-game murder attempt (Ivan loves gazpacho).  Instead of either tragedy unfolding as planned, the gazpacho litters Pepa’s apartment with the unconscious bodies of an exponential number of hungry fools who sneak a taste: first Carlos’s bratty girlfriend (the fascinating-looking Rossy de Palma), then the meathead cops who seek to bust Pepa’s naïve bestie, then practically every other character on the cast list in a giant impromptu slumber party.  It’s a hilariously wholesome escalation of a plot point that first promised to be nastily lethal (although delicious).

My other favorite payoff is more aesthetic & superficial: the matter-of-fact presentation of this world’s surreal artificiality.  The exterior shots of Pepa’s apartment building are represented in fake, plastic miniatures, and the skyline outside her apartment is an old-school painted backdrop.  Given her work at a movie studio, you’d expect those images to be a winking joke that the movie pulls away from to reveal the “real” world behind that artifice.  Instead, they’re just allowed to exist on screen as-is, entirely matter-of-fact.  I found that choice just as rewardingly delightful as any of the madcap complexities of the plot.  There are many comedies that are just as funny as Women on the Verge, but there are very few, if any, that look this fabulous.

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea who Rossy de Palma was until I watched this movie, and I am totally obsessed with her now. She is mesmerizing!  I am especially loving the photos from her modeling career. The looks she served when wearing Thierry Mugler are absolutely stunning. Also, she apparently makes an appearance in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, which I’m pretty excited to watch now.

Boomer: My absolute favorite bit was Pepa’s laundry commercial. It’s just so perfect: the self-identification as the Crossroads Killer’s mother, her presentation of the detergent, the reaction of the cops to the lack of viscera on her son’s freshly washed clothing. Just ::chef’s kiss::.

Brandon: This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie I’ve seen to date, mostly because it’s fully immersed in the things he excels at best (Gorgeous Artifice & Complex Women) while also sidestepping a lot of the darker, more violent tones of his work (which is an odd thing to say about a movie that occasionally dabbles in murder & suicide).  It’s a perfectly constructed little screwball comedy throwback populated by wonderfully over-the-top women and set in a world so beautifully artificial it’s practically Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It’s perfect.

Hanna: Almodóvar has said that women make the best characters, and he absolutely delivers that here. We have deranged women, compassionate women, cruel women, calculating women, funny women, tired women, angry women, all revolving around one barely-present man who doesn’t deserve their attention. If this movie were made in the US, I think Pepa would have ended up with some doting hunk in the end; instead she burns her bed, reclaims her beautiful loft apartment, and moves on with her life. Glorious.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Passion Fish (1992)
December: Britnee presents Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

-The Swampflix Crew