KING CORN may take a whimsical approach to its subject matter, the impact of corn on the American economy and population, but it’s deadly serious when it comes to pondering its implications. Expanding waistlines, the demise of the family farm, and what exactly goes into high fructose corn syrup all come into play as the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head, snarls and turns us into a population of corn people. Literally.
The film begins with college pals Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis having their hair tested in a laboratory. Hair, the film explains, is like a tape recorder of everything consumed by the body while it was growing. The lab results show most of the carbon, that building block of life, that is in their bodies is derived from corn. Not that they, or we for that matter, have been dining on that grain directly. Rather, it was a fascinating indirect route. It’s what was fed to the livestock that was in the hamburger, it’s in the sweetener that is in everything from spaghetti sauce to sodas, and even in the glue that holds the packaging for all that together.
Cheney and Ellis tell the tale of how that all happened by using the macrocosm in the microcosm of the one acre of corn that they decide to grow just outside the small town of Greene, Iowa, a place from which their families hail, but which they have never visited. They gamely negotiate the Byzantine government subsidy process, fertilizer that kills everything in the soil, and the bemusement and amusement of the locals who humor these Easteners in their midst. The film takes its tone from the good humor of those stalwart Iowans, who love the land enough to stick with it even when the times, and the economy are pressuring them to pull out. Our heroes are unfailingly chipper, meeting distant relatives who are delighted to share the family history, sledding down a mountain of surplus corn, or imagining ingenious stop-motion animations to deftly explain the economics of farming using Fisher-Price toys and the golden grain itself. No demonstration is more potent, more disturbing, nor more emblematic, though, than the reaction of Cheney and Ellis after each plucks an ear of corn from their acre, peels back the husk, and takes a huge bite out of their crop. It is with consternation that they, and the audience, discover that what they have grown, what the government is paying them to farm, is inedible. At least for humans.
The process, from filling out forms to the emotions that well up during the final harvest, provides an inspired framework for the history of the farm subsidy, which seemed like a good idea at the time. In the 1970s, then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz wanted to encourage farmers to plant more crops. Agricultural supplies got on board, machinery got bigger to accommodate the larger fields under cultivation, corn was engineered to tolerate growing more closely together, and then to tolerate chemicals that killed the weeds around them. Corn prices dropped, subsidies and supports kept the farmers in business, and business found all sort of dandy new uses for the corn that was suddenly so abundant and cheap.
Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and Dr. Butz himself both appear in the film, talking about the ideals that drove, and the reality that is, the curious question of overabundance in the United States. When stridency can be the easiest path for a compelling film, it is the determination to remain civil that is as impressive as its meticulous scholarship. KING CORN, is a bittersweet paean to a lost way of life and eating. While being entertaining and even a little mischievous, it finds perverse outcomes, but no villains. It is informative, without creating partisanship, respectful without being patronizing, entertaining without being dumbed-down.