Corn Circles

Two recent college grads investigate the cyclical nature of America's obsession with corn.

In the opening minutes of the documentary King Corn — directed by Aaron Woolf and starring Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney (also Woolf's co-producer) — we learn that at least one old cliché is true: We are, in fact, what we eat. Specifically, a University of Virginia scientist informs us, our hair is a "continuous tape recorder" of our diet. Analysis of hair samples from Ellis and Cheney shows that almost all of the carbon in their bodies comes from corn. Which makes them, more or less, average Americans.

The discovery prompts Ellis and Cheney, recent college graduates, to understand how processed corn products have come to dominate the American diet. Idle curiosity it's not. Ellis and Cheney decided to analyze their diets in the first place after they learned that members of their generation might be the first in American history not to live longer than their parents.

You have to wonder what a filmmaker such as Michael Moore, to pick the most obvious example, would have done with this material. Dumped a few tons of corn on the front lawn of Coca-Cola's CEO, most likely. To their credit, Ellis and Cheney take a much more low-key, hands-on approach: They lease an acre of corn from a farmer in the small town of Greene, Iowa, and follow it from planting to harvest.

Holy crop! Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis sample the fruits of their labor from an acre of their farmland in Greene, Iowa.
Sam Cullman
Holy crop! Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis sample the fruits of their labor from an acre of their farmland in Greene, Iowa.

By a remarkable coincidence, both Ellis and Cheney — who met at Yale — had direct ancestors who lived in Greene. The common heritage lends a depth of feeling to the otherwise mundane details of growing corn: planting seeds, buying fertilizer, applying for government subsidies. It also lets the filmmakers separate their criticism of American farming from their portrayal of the farmers themselves, who come off as utterly sympathetic, men and women doing the best they can in an increasingly untenable occupation.

But King Corn isn't merely a film about watching grass grow. In fact, the bulk of the documentary follows Ellis and Cheney as they explore the role corn plays in our food system. This, they learn, is essentially a giant feedback loop. The government subsidizes farmers to produce a glut of corn, that corn than feeds the meat we eat and sweetens the sodas we drink, and even if we realize that there are healthier options than corn-fed meat, processed foods and soda with high-fructose corn syrup, more often than not we choose the corn-based food because its price is so low — precisely because the government pays farmers to produce so much corn in the first place.

The argument is compelling, especially because the filmmakers keep the pace brisk. They intercut documentary-standard talking heads and historical evidence with, for example, clever stop-motion animations using what look like Fisher-Price toys to illustrate statistical points. While two Yale graduates farming provides predictable (and predictably gentle) humor, there's unexpected levity, too, as when Ellis and Cheney, having been denied access to a plant producing high fructose corn syrup, make their own.

The film doesn't have one antagonist, given the sheer number of food firms that produce corn-based products — though Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz comes close. It was Butz who implemented the change in farming policy that has led to today's corn glut. In the film's weakest moment, Ellis and Cheney track down the now elderly Butz. His argument hasn't changed, nor do Ellis and Cheney push him very hard.

Still, the filmmakers never claim to be muckrakers, and what makes King Corn so successful is both the plain language with which Ellis and Cheney present the role of corn in our diet as well as the human voice they give their argument, from the farmer who admits that he's growing "crap" but has no other choice, economically, to the Brooklyn driver who lost 100 pounds once he stopped drinking two-liters of grape soda. The film's most stirring moment is when Ellis and Cheney camp out in their acre of corn the night before they harvest it. The mood is somber, reflective. They know now that they are inextricably part of the massive American food machine. Just like all of us.

 
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