“Flip, Flop, Fly” – The Fabulization of the Death-Camp in the Age of Extermination

a note on the film “Chicken Run” (2000)

The western world had through the second part of the 20th century shifted from Death to Extermination. In this period the extermination camps became the absolute reference of Evil. When extermination becomes part of our daily life or at least its background, one is not surprised to see that it is transformed into myth and legends. From the documentary films made in the liberation of the camps, paying by half documentary film, as Nuit et brouillard [Night and Fog] (1955) of Alain Resnais, into sublimated films like, and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985). Later one we passed to a more consummate film like Schindler's List (1993), and to a fantastic films like La vita è bella (1997) of Roberto Benigni. Chicken Run (2000) is the next stage where the Extermination Camp becomes a fable.

When we are choosing a chicken in the super-market, we observe it well and carefully read the label on the cover: the part of the chicken, weight, price, date of slaughtering, and the limit date for consuming. The label precedes the chicken, not the chicken the label. The same action is true to the way we choose books or films in the library. We know that those shorts paragraphs have one target: to make us buy the product; We know that they are hiding more than they are exposing; nevertheless we read them, enjoying the small deception, in which we take part. Here is the writing on the cover of the DVD, of the film Chicken Run (2000):

While the chickens on evil Mrs.Tweedy’s farm dream of a better life, a clever hen named Ginger makes her move with a scheme to fly the coop – for good! The only problem? Chickens can’t fly…or can they? Every escape attempt goes fowl until Rocky, a smooth-talking, all-American rooster, comes crash-landing into the coop It’s hardly poultry in motion as Rocky attempts to teach Ginger and her fine-feathered friends to fly- but with teamwork, determination and a little bit of luck, the fearless flock plots one last daring caper in a spectacular bid for freedom.

What the cover is not telling us is significant: Mrs. Tweedy, for enlarging her profits, decide to passes from eggs selling to chicken pies selling: “Miss Tweedy’s chicken pies”.

It is not anymore about killing each chicken when she stops to laying eggs, but rather of all the chickens by a machine: “From one side enter a chicken, from the other side going out a pie”, as stupid Mr. Tweedy says to himself. The chicken farm is transformed from egg farm into a meat farm, from a working camp into an extermination camp. Extermination is in the heart of the story.

The film is located in the forties/fifties; the chicken farm is shaped as war prisoner’s camp or Nazi concentration camp: a grey square of wooden barracks, fences, lighting projector, and guard dogs. The figure of Major Fowler, the Royal Air Force rooster, send us to films as Stalag 17 (1954), and to The Great Escape(1963). Mel Gibson who is behind the voice of the American rooster Rocky explains to us in the bonus of the DVD: “It’s a story of chickens fighting for their independence from a chicken yard, almost as a Second World War sort of escape, like movie, chicken caught in a stalage”.

One of the scenes is resembled to a death-life Selection: the chickens are in three lines, trembling from fear. Mrs. Tweedy is passing, observing them, with the table of eggs laying in her hands. A chicken that stopped laying eggs is getting out from the line. Mrs. Tweedy cut off her head with an axe.

After the failed escape attempts of the chickens, Ginger, the leader, proposes that they will escape by the air. The proposal is answered by general mockery because chicken can’t fly. She is going out of the assembly, crying in despair, asking for a miracle from heaven. In the same moment she see a flying rooster (Rocky), who finished is flight, falling into one of the feeder of the farm.

Having escaped from a Circus, Rocky promised to teach the chickens to fly if they agree to hide him. In the day of truth, Rocky runs away and the truth is discovered: Rocky cannot fly, he was a gun shooting flight rooster in the circus. However, Ginger gets the idea to build an airplane. The building of the airplane is then a race against the clock, while Mr. Tweedy is fixing the Chicken Pie Machine. Towards the end of the film, in the climax of the story, the extermination Pie Machine is fixed. Mrs. Tweedy is ordering Mr. Tweedy: “Get the Chickens”. “Which ones?” he is asking. “All of them.” She is answering. The Chicken Farm become from Stalag 17 into Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The chickens are attacking Mr. tweedy and succeed to bind him. They take out the airplane that will save them, a birdlike (gigantic hen), with huge mechanic wings, powered by the pedaling of the entire coop. The airplane starts to run to takeoff, but Mr. Tweedy throwing down the takeoff ramp. The airplane makes a turn in the last minute, hitting Mr. Tweedy to the ground. Ginger jumps from the airplane for getting up the take-off ramp. Mrs. Tweedy intends to kill Ginger with the axe, when Rocky (Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson) regretting his escape, comes back at that moment and hit Mrs. Tweedy on her head and saves Ginger life. Ginger and Rocky succeed together in the last minute to take up the ramp (Anglo-American collaboration) the takeoff make possible by that the Salvation of the entire coop.

The coop is taking off to freedom, powered by the pedaling of all the chickens, while Good Old Rooster, Major Fowler fly the airplane (maybe because chickens are in last account just chickens, the pilot is a male). But like in horror films when we think the nightmare is ended the evil appears again [like in the film Terminator (1984), when after the explosion of the terminator, his metal hand come to life, trying to kill Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor the future savoir of humanity]. Mrs. Tweedy, lying unconsciousness on the ground, wakes and captures the cable that was caught by the airplane.

Ginger is going down the cable against the climbing Mrs. Tweedy with an axe between her teeth. In the moment of the encounter between the two, somewhere on the cable, between the Sky and Earth, the scissors, with them tried Ginger to cut the cable (of servitude) is falling. She is helpless face Mrs. Tweedy, who raises the axe for cutting her head. Ginger removes her head in the last moment. Mrs. Tweedy in her murders madness cuts the cable and bring about her own fall. While Mrs. Tweedy falls into the Chicken Pies Machine, the chickens rise to freedom. The Machine explodes, destroying the entire Farm. Good Old Major say:  “The Old Bird Bought it” [Laughing].  The chickens win: Mrs. Tweedy, the oppressor of birds, becomes in her turn a bird.

In the last shot the chickens are amusing themselves in a green meadow: young chickens are listening, fascinating, to Major Fowler’s heroic stories. If we didn’t understand where we are, fools that we are, we are in Chicken Paradise, as the sign behind the major says: “Paradise Prunes”. A life of endless vacation, a kind of “Mediterranean Club” for chickens: full of sportive and playing activities. We are in the “Land of Toys”, like that of The Adventure of Pinocchio of Carlo Collodi (1883). Described by Ginger: “There’s no morning head count, no farmers, no dogs and coops and keys…and no fences”. So closed to the description of Lucignolo, the good friend of Pinocchio described of the Paese di balocchi: as a country were there are “no schools, no teachers, no books! In that blessed place there is no such thing as study. Here, it is only on Saturdays that we have no school. In the Land of Toys, every day, except Sunday, is a Saturday. Vacation begins on the first of January and ends on the last day of December. That is the place for me! All countries should be like it! How happy we should all be!” .

However in the Chicken Paradise we do not get up one morning, discover that we have a crest on our head, and that we have been transformed into chickens…this is impossible, for we are already chickens, and happy ones. Ginger and Rocky appear as a couple: Rocky says to Ginger: “Is it as good as you imagined?” “No,” Ginger answers, “it’s better". After a moment we see the couple walking down a hill, in the background playing chickens, Ginger to Rocky: "Come on, I’ll show you how to play cricket." Indeed we are in the Paese de Ballochi were: "Days are spent in play and enjoyment from morn till night. At night one goes to bed, and next morning, the good times begin all over again."

End. The camera drives away slowly and we discover out that it is an island in a lake, surrounded by green mountains. The title: THE END” appear between the mountains, on the ackground of blue sky. The subtitles rise while in the background we hear the rock-and-roll song:

When I get the blues
Gon’get me a rockin chairWhen the blues over take meGonna rock on away from here
Here comes my baby
Flashin’ a new gold tooth
Yeah she is so small
She can rumba in a pay phone booth
That’s the truth ha-ha!
Flip, Flop, Fly
I don’t care if I die
Don’t ever leave me
Don’t ever say good-bye
Yeah! Bye-bye.

Flip, Flop, Fly: In Chicken Run the extermination camp is transformed into a child’s fairy tale, sweet and funny fable. It proposes a solution to the threat of extermination: a light, not obliging and surely positive. The message is completely optimist: Chickens can fly! chickens can be saved, what we need is infinite optimism. When one of the chickens says: “ Oh, face the facts, ducks. The chances of us getting’ out of here are a million to one.” Ginger answer: “Then there’s still a chance”. Did you get it, Ducks?

Mrs. Tweedy explains to Mr. Tweedy: “They are chickens, you dolt! Apart from you, they’re the most stupid creatures on this planet. They don’t plot, they don’t scheme, and they are not organized!” Apparently we discovered the opposite: Chickens are not so stupid: they do plot, they do scheme and they do organize. However the stupidity of the chicken mob is reinforced during all the film. They are just a bunch of stupid females, that want to attract the male Rocky (Mel Gibson), they are obsessed by food: when Mr. Tweedy is giving them a plenty of food, the chickens are eating without understanding that they are fattened for slaughtering. The intelligence of Ginger, or Mac (the scientific)is the exceptional. Even in Paradise, the stupid chicken, par excellence: Babs (the one that knitting all the time) says while knitting: “This is a lovely holiday. I’ll be sad to go back.”

The Salvation of the chickens is despite their stupidity. The organization of the chicken mob together is the key for Salvation. Major Fowler is saying to the paddling chickens in the super-Chickens airplane in her way to the chicken’s paradise: “You can’t see paradise if you don’t pedal”. Just a common pedaling makes Salvation possible: United we stand and in Ginger we Trust.

 

The stupidity of the chicken mob should not worry us. It is enough that we will act as one chicken, follow the leader, or a small group of leaders, why not a couple of a chosen hen and a chosen rooster. Did not Ginger and Rocky together, in the last moment took up the platform on which takeoff the bird to freedom? Salvation will come by the leaders, the few, the elected. The hero will become in the end, the only rooster of the coop, omni-potent, the Male, surround by young and not frightened roosters and a mob of demanding and admiring chickens.

Chicken Run is an Animal Fable. By projecting human conflicts onto animal characters, we avoid feeling threatened or overwhelmed by the real-world problems they encounter in this simplified and charming form. The transfer of the Extermination camp into the chicken Farm, the humans into chickens, the Nazis into a British couple, make it possible to speak about the Extermination Camp without, really speaking about it. To transform it to a bearable and amusing thing, into a film for all the family, all ages and edible like Macdonald’s Hamburger: soft and squeezable.

The chicken farm is a nice and friendly Extermination Camp, as in La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful) of Roberto Benigni (1997). But while in Benigni Extermination Camp people are exterminated (the father of the child himself is murdered), in Chicken Run the death is not seen, the treat of extermination is not fulfilled. All the chickens are saved. Chicken Run is not a Commedia all’italiana where the tragic become comic. This is a comedy where the tragic is not really tragic. As an answer to the extermination camp Chicken Run proposes us running away to an isolated Paradise Island. Escaping to an imaginary paradise, into the sphere of fantasy. Finally it is an entertainment film; it is supposed to divert us and to sell.   

It is ridicules to analyze seriously what the cover of the DVD says to be: “SUPERB FAMILY FUN” but it is maybe exactly a good reason to analyze the light-headed in a gravely.  The funny lightness camouflages the message and in this way makes its acceptance easy, if not unappreciated.  

What make the entertainment culture so problematic, is its capacity to say without saying, to make the message absorbable and undemanding. This is also her greatness, to divert the mind and to amuse; why not?
Flip, Flop, Fly
I don’t car if I die

There is something so banal in the script, so stereotypical in the figures, as like in my own critique of the film. Finally, it is another one of Hollywood’s products, although it was made in England. We find a simple conception of the world: Good against the Evil, the simple guy, the mediocre, the macho, that becomes the hero that saves us from disaster. The ridiculous image of the scientist, the stupid female par excellence, the escape into Paradise, the HAPPY END.

The question is, why we do enjoy the film? Why, do we enjoy identifying with the “Chicken Condition” in the Farm-Extermination Camp? If Tweedy Farm is a camouflage parable to Auschwitz, does Auschwitz form a part of our life experience?
Are we chickens in a Coop-Camp?

From Animal Farm to Chicken Run

We speak about animals for speaking about humans. Observing which animal fable we are telling might tell us something about ourselves. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most famous animal fables ever written. The animals in the Manor Farm rebel against Mr. Jones under the leadership of the pigs: Snowball and Napoleon. The revolution transforms the Farm into an Animal Farm, declaring all the animals free and equal. However, the idealist image soon starts to deteriorate. From the beginning we see first seeds of corruption. For example, the cow’s milk is served only to the pigs. Soon we find tension between the two leaders, which is finished in a putsch by Napoleon, and the exile of Snowball from the Farm. The Revolution slowly becomes a nightmare: the human oppression is replaced by an oligarchic terror regime of the Pigs. “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL” Become” ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”.

While Animal Farm was written as a political parable, this is not the case of Chicken Run. However, both of them are animal’s fables that are telling us more about humans rather than animals. It is telling us about our own society. Let us read the two fables one against the other.

In the heart of Animal Farm the Revolution and its failure, the attempt of the animal to liberated themselves from the oppressed regime of Mr. Jones and to manage for themselves the Farm. The animal society in Animal Farm is a complex one: Horses, Pigs, dogs, chickens, ducks, etc. the same is true for the relations between the different animals. The World is not divided into Good and Bad, oppressed and oppressors. The pigs at the head of the revolution are the directly responsible for its corruption. But not all the pigs. The hoggishness (in its metaphoric sense) is not in the nature of the pigs. The pig in Animal Farm is free to be hoggish or not: to follow Snowball or Napoleon. Chicken Run lacks this complexity. The society of the chickens is homogenous; the chickens are good, the humans are bad.

Animal Farm starts with a binary division: Man-Animal: “Four legs good, two legs bad,” with the idea that: “Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever .” It is ended with a blurring of the limits between humans and animals: In the last lines of the book, when the animals are looking through the window and see the pigs playing cards and drinking with the humans: “ The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”  The binary thinking and its use by the demagogy of the regime is at the heart of Orwell’s critiques. The oppression is not in the human but also in the nature of the animals themselves.  The duality Human/Animal, Evil/Good, which the Revolution proposed is exposed in its emptiness. In Chicken Run we find the same duality: Human/Animal, Evil/Good in its triumph. There is no bad chicken. Salvation is a world without humans, a paradise where evil not exist. In this sense Chicken Run present a binary conception of the world, simplified thinking of “whoever is not with us is against us” or of struggle between the Axis of Good (=God) against the Axis of Evil (=Satan).This binary thinking is messianic in its nature.

The messianic thinking is found also in Animal Farm, in the figure of the raven Max, “the collaborator” with the oppressive regime of Mr. Jones in the beginning of the book and later with Napoleon’s dictatorship: “He claimed to know of the existence of a mysterious country called Sugarcandy Mountain, to which all animals went when they died. It was situated somewhere up in the sky, a little distance beyond the clouds, Moses said. In Sugarcandy Mountain it was Sunday seven days a week, clover was in season all the year round, and lump sugar and linseed cake grew on the hedges.” . But while this religious paradisiacal messianism in Animal Farm is brought in a very negative light, the earthly-messianism of the Revolution is exposed in its failure; In Chicken Run Paradise is the only possible solution. The Hollywood extermination scenario goes hand in hand with messianic thinking. The solution given to the “Final Solution” is the “Final Salvation”. This is accompanied with constant flattery to the average, mediocre man, stuttered, vulgar Savior.

In Animal Farm the stupidity of the animal-mob is presented as one reason for the failure of the Revolution. The mediocrity of the mob, its blind swarming after the leadership, is presented in all its dangerous and sad consequences. Boxer, the working horse, who adopts the slogan: “I will work harder” and after the putsch the slogan: “Napoleon is always right,” after being injured, is sold to the butcher by Napoleon…the money is used for buying whisky for the pigs. In Chicken Run the leaders are the saviors, the stupidity of the mob is not harmful: they are liberated from any responsibility.

Animal Farm ends with the failure of the Revolution, it is reinforcing in us the critics towards the revolutionary messianism, towards the leaders and the way the manipulate the mob. Chicken Run is to the contrary reinforced in us, the belief, for the need to follow the leaders, and according to theirs orders to act as one body on our way to Salvation.

Animal Farm is anti-capitalist, but it describes the failure of a Communist Regime. Chicken run, whose production budget was 34 millions dollars, is just seemed to critic the capitalism: the greediness of Mrs. Tweedy. The solution that Chicken Run proposed is: the escape into paradise. In this way the message of Chicken Run is not so different from the preaching of the raven Max in Animal Farm about Sugarcandy Mountain. A critiques that send us to the fantasy, enforce in fact the existent situation. It is not giving us tools to confront reality but a way to escape it.

Animal Farm was published in 1947 after the Second World War; Chicken Run in 2000, after the fall of the Berlin wall (1989), and before the era of the post 11 September 2001. Animal Farm may symbolize the fall of Communism, Chicken Run the victory of Hollywoodisim. The western world had through the second part of the 20th century shifted from Death to Extermination. In this period the extermination camps became the absolute reference of Evil. One can see in the two animals fables marked of this sensibility shift: While Animal Farm is yet in the era of Death, Chicken Run is in the era of Extermination.

The process of fabulation of the extermination is a kind of therapy: it is making the unbearable bearable. In the same time, the banalisation of the Death Camp, opens the gate for future extermination. However, what is more problematic is the simplistic bipolar thinking where extermination is inscribed with a messianic way of thought.

One day we will wake up, with a small cock’s head. In some time we will find that our skin is covered by feathers, later on we will not have any other things to do than to crow. We will hope that Mel Gibson will come to save us from hell, as 'Mad' Max Rockatansky, or maybe in the form of Rocky, the flying Rooster, who will take us to Paradise. There we will all sing together:Flip, Flop, Fly
I don’t car if I die.