A couple of quick facts about corn and sex: Corn is promiscuous. Corn “plays with itself,” essentially fertilizing its own kernels using its own tassel and silk. That big bite of juicy sweet corn you just bit off the cob is actually a big mouthful of ripened ovaries. Um, um. There’s good eatin’!
These tasty tidbits and more emerge from Monteith McCollum’s fascinating if somewhat sluggish documentary “Hybrid”. To set the record straight, however, this isn’t so much a study of corn as it is a documentary about Iowa centenarian Milford Beeghly.
Back in the 1930’s, Beeghly, McCollum’s grandfather, was a pioneer in the then-scandalous field of cross-pollination and hybrid creation of seed corn. According to his children, interviewed here, Beeghly was an aloof and taciturn man whom they barely knew growing up. He simply lived for his corn, growing his hybrids in secret and forming his own company to peddle his seed to dubious farmers and neighbors.
“Hybrid” does explore Beeghly’s younger years to a certain extent. It shows, for instance, a series of 1950’s television commercials Beeghly made to promote his seed corn. It also acknowledges him as the 1928 Iowa State Champion Hog Caller. Yet, most of this film concentrates on Beeghly today, an eccentric, (slightly) mellowing old widower who re-married at 94 and still seems to deal with all things corn better than people.
Lest this sound too dry or too much like some staid “Learning Channel” profile, rest assured that McCollum spices up Beeghly’s biography with a subversive sexual undercurrent that runs throughout. He also makes effective use of time-lapse photography and stop motion animation to demonstrate corn’s method of mating and growth cycle while using ærial footage shot from a crop duster to bolster the film’s stark yet noble black and white photography. A haunting viola-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of “Eleanor Rigby”-era Beatles or extremely early ELO fits the film’s stately mood, yet also contributes to its sometimes ponderous feel.
Which is the main knock against this unusual film. Granted, the long stately landscape shots of an Iowa farm buried under a blizzard are æsthetically pleasing and fit the slower-paced lifestyle that Beeghly and his midwestern peers live. Unfortunately, it also greatly slows the film down.
Although a film about an old man and his passion for corn might, at first blush, sound pretty boring, it thankfully isn’t the case for “Hybrid.”