We feed ourselves very cheaply now. You see those tremendous fields of corn out there, corn as far as the eye can see? That's the age of plenty.
—Earl Butz, former secretary of agriculture, in "King Corn"
A terrific new documentary called "King Corn" is opening this Friday in New York, a week later in D.C. and Boston, then coming to the West Coast (schedule). I saw a rough cut in April at the Food and Society Conference, where I heard the three filmmakers talk about the project, and last weekend I watched the latest, much-tighter version (connections, baby).
The basics: two 20-something guys, Ian Cheney (above left) and Curt Ellis (Curt's cousin Aaron Woolf directed it) move to Greene, Iowa, where both their great-grandfathers once lived, in order to grow an acre's worth of corn. By doing so, they hope to get a glimpse into how maize is so dramatically overproduced in this country that mountains of it sit next to the full gigantic granaries, and why it has become the go-to cheap ingredient for processed food, fast food, and animal fodder.
With just a few hours' work, $28 in direct subsidy payments from the U.S. government, and some genetically engineered seeds and synthetic fertilizer, the guys grow almost 180 bushels of corn — over 10,000 pounds of food. Except, as they discover, it's inedible.
The growing of the corn is mainly a storytelling device through which they explore the labyrinthine support system for cheap food in this country. Employing some adorable, yet low-budget techniques like stop-motion photography of Fisher Price farmers and kernels of corn marching across a map, they provide a succinct history of modern U.S. agriculture. They interview other corn farmers, a veterinary scientist (who shows what eating corn does to a cow's stomach in a particularly vivid segment), Michael Pollan, a creepy Tammy-Faye-Bakker-lookalike spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association, and cattle ranchers who fatten cows on corn in crowded, grim feedlots.
Stalking the enemy
Ian and Curt — dressed in big-boy suits and ties — even seek out Earl Butz. Many would argue that Butz, who was secretary of agriculture in the 1970s, is singlehandedly responsible for the corporatization of U.S. farming, the obesity epidemic, and the pollution of vast swathes of America by agricultural chemicals. But face to face with the nonagenarian Bogeyman of the sustainable food movement in his nursing home, the guys can't quite bring themselves to come in for the rhetorical kill, neither in person nor voiceover.
Such niceness is both the film's strength, and its weakness. This is no Michael Moore film, although it is being billed as a cross between "Sicko" and "Supersize Me." Unlike the former, "King Corn" doesn't feel like blatant left-wing propaganda: it presents its facts fairly neutrally, and the guys are scrupulously respectful of their interview subjects. Curt and Ian said at the April screening that they had showed the film to the farmers who participated in it, and that no one had found fault with their depiction — not even the farmer who admits, with a fierce grin, that "We aren't growing quality. We're growing crap. Poorest quality crap the world's ever seen."
As was true for "Supersize Me," there are no bad guys in "King Corn," only victims like the Brooklyn taxi driver who was grossly obese until he cut out soda from his diet. The rest of his family wasn't so lucky: the man lost his mother, father, and grandmother to diabetes; a sister has lived with it for years. And he too has just been diagnosed.
What "King Corn" does not spell out in blinking neon lights for us, the way a Michael Moore documentary would, is this: We Americans are both villain and victim in the story of corn. After bread prices rose in the 1970s, we insisted on a reliable supply of cheap food, and Earl Butz, the government, and farmers found a way to give it to us. As the Colorado cattleman who operates a feedlot for 14,000 miserable-looking cattle says in the film, "If the American people wanted strictly grassfed beef, we would produce grassfed beef for them But it's definitely more expensive, and one of the tenets in America is, America wants and demands cheap food."
A kernel of truth
"King Corn" shows us the problems, but the filmmakers don't give us any quick fixes, or even any activist homework to do. Nor do they show us any overt outrage through which we can vicariously express our indignation at this screwed-up state of affairs, as "Fast Food Nation" (the film) did. Which is not to say that the makers of the film aren't horrified by what they learn. After they meet the diabetic taxi driver, Ian says in a voiceover that all of a sudden, "It wasn't just a game for seeing where our food came from. We were growing an actual crop that was destined to be eaten by actual people." And after the screening in April, "King Corn" director Aaron Woolfe told the crowd that filming the feedlots — an Inferno-esque circle of hell if ever there was one — affected him the most. "I didn't even know I believed in God," he said, "but what I saw made me feel like it was an act against God, almost Promethean defiance, to turn these animals into machines for us like that."
It will be interesting to see whether general audiences passively consume "King Corn," or whether it will plant seeds of awareness. And all you Ethicurean readers who are thinking smugly, "I know all this stuff already," go anyway — and take a fast-food-eating friend or two along. Tell them it's like "Curt and Ian's Excellent Corn Adventure." Just skip the concession stand. There's more than enough corn in the movie to fill you up.
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