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This producer’s not chicken to tackle domestic beasts

Originally published in Current, April 3, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

Australian documentarian Mark Lewis carries on the proud tradition of natural history filmmaking, though to his mind most nature producers have veered to the exotic.

Lewis, white-haired, with hand on cow, black-and-white-haired“I’ve never quite understood the fascination with elephants and tigers and things,” he says. “People should have more concern for these other animals they co-exist with, like cats and cows.”

“I mean,” he adds, “people consume billions and billions of chickens worldwide and no one gives a chicken a second thought.”

Lewis does. His warm and funny doc, The Natural History of the Chicken, a popular PBS offering in 2001, featured diaper-wearing poultry, a woman who performed mouth-to-beak resuscitation on her nearly-frozen chicken, and a hen’s dramatic efforts to protect her chicks from a predator.

The same offbeat spirit pervades Lewis’s latest project to appear on PBS, The Standard of Perfection — two hourlong docs focusing on prize animals and the people who devote their lives to showing them. “Show Cats” is scheduled for 8 p.m. Eastern April 19, with a repeat at 10 p.m. April 24. “Show Cattle” follows at the same hours April 26 and 30.

He introduces viewers to the curious critter-show subculture lampooned by the 2000 mockumentary Best in Show and indulged by telecasts of actual competitions such as the Westminster Dog Show.

Lewis attended his first animal competition, a dog show, roughly 15 years ago, he says. So perhaps the surprising aspect of The Standard of Perfection was not his decision to film animal show docs, but rather that it’s taken him this long to do it.

The subject is right in his wheelhouse, after all. Since filming Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, his 1988 account of Australia’s misguided, state-sponsored toad proliferation, Lewis has made his reputation with engaging, comical docs whose nominal subjects are commonplace species—rats and dogs as well as chickens. 

“It’s the connection between man and animals that I enjoy . . . people let their guards down with animals,” Lewis says.

“With Cane Toads I stumbled onto an animal so intrinsically linked with humans,” he says. His film featured folks playing with the plump and ugly pests, attempting to catch a buzz from their toxic secretions, and otherwise coping creatively with the toad plague.

“When I first started, I went to traditional sources like academics, biologists . . . but they all have such a dry approach,” he says. “I can’t show the animals’ points of view, so the best way to get at that is to show the people who relate to them the most.”

The people in The Standard of Perfection devote themselves to their animals to an extent unknown in many marriages. They primp and pamper, diapering cat bottoms and salving cow udders. One no-nonsense woman who shows cattle claims that she spends more time and money on her cow’s hair than her own, and you believe her. Some Texas couples spend weekend after weekend and thousands of dollars carting their Persians from show to show. A farmer from Maine pontificates on similarities between a good-looking cow and an attractive woman.

“I don’t deliberately go out and try to make a ‘quirky’ film. . . . The reason they get described that way is because I like enthusiastic or passionate people,” Lewis says. “And when people are being very serious and earnest or enthusiastic about animals, people think it’s funny.” That’s okay with him.

“Obviously these aren’t sociopolitical films with big commentaries or social significance,” he adds, but he thinks they might actually be trickier to pull off than weightier issue-oriented films. “It’s very hard to make people smile and feel good and laugh,” he says.

Next up for Lewis: films following a California synchronized swimming club and the U.S. Hair Olympic Team as each strives for greatness in their callings. The Pursuit of Excellence is tentatively slated for broadcast in early to mid-2007, PBS says.

Web page posted April 19, 2006
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006

OUTSIDE LINKS

About Lewis and his Chicken program, on the website of his distributor, DDE Enterprises.

Matthew Prins, a film critic, compares Lewis with Errol Morris and Michael Moore, but says his work in Chicken was a beak's length from greatness.

The Cat Fanciers' Association, with information on cat breeds and upcoming shows.

Dairy Cattle Show, October 2006, Madison, Wis.

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