Taking an Abstract Idea and Creating a Narrative

King Corn is a slightly apocalyptic documentary that explores where we come from—or where our food comes from, at the very least. By interweaving a filmmaker-as-subject story of two guys, a cornfield, and some ammonia fertilizer with disparate elements, the film expertly tackles the complicated overarching issues related to farming subsidies in the United States. In successfully visualizing the banal, King Corn takes advantage of many of the most affecting techniques of documentary filmmaking. Lessons in agriculture and farm policy are punctuated with beautiful landscape photography, the appropriate and powerful use of archival footage, and even some clever graphics, including an animated stop-motion sequence that uses corn kernels spreading over a map of the United States to illustrate the evolution of corn crops since pre-Colombian times.

Making a film about an abstract and recondite idea like farm subsidies—as opposed to following an interesting character, exploring a controversial issue, or telling a gripping narrative story—can be a tremendous challenge, but one that more filmmakers seem intent to explore these days. The David Guggenheim-Al Gore extravaganza, An Inconvenient Truth, represents the apex of this trend, but there are plenty of other examples out there. Gary Burns’s recent Radiant City tackles the subject of suburban sprawl, while Alan Berliner’s Wide Awake, a documentary currently airing on HBO, is a meditation on sleep and the filmmaker’s never ending quest for it.

The genesis of King Corn came about six years ago, when director Aaron Woolf decided he wanted to make a film about food, calling it “the most important story in America to tell right now.” Woolf’s previous work demonstrated an ability to tackle complex subjects: both Dying to Leave: The Global Face of Human Trafficking and Smuggling, and Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball, and the United States, aired on PBS. This time around, however, Woolf didn’t know exactly how to tackle the subject. He says he tends to focus on finding a great story that might illuminate a larger issue, rather than the other way around. Starting with an issue—as he did in this case—can put a documentary at risk of being polemic, or just feeling like one big lecture. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, “I couldn’t imagine a subject I would less want to make a film about, or that you could make a film about,” he admits.

Not knowing where to start, Woolf handed $5,000 to his younger cousin Curtis Ellis and Curt’s friend Ian Cheney, both of whom studied agriculture academically. His direction to them: find a food tale that would make a decent film. Woolf figured the younger filmmakers could do a good job because, well, they were hungry to tell this kind of story. “Curt and Ian take this shit seriously,” Woolf explains. “The stakes are higher for their generation…[environmental awareness] is not about a cool thing to do with your friends that has some political import. They feel the earth is in their hands; it’s clear from the food system. We have the food system that we have because we chose it.”

To get a grip on the subject, Ellis and Cheney decided to follow their roots back to the small town of Greene, Iowa, population 1,015. There, they embarked on a hunt to learn more about their great grandparents, both sets of whom were farmers in Greene three generations ago—long before farm subsidies were introduced in the 1970s. The filmmakers drove around the state conducting interviews and looking for both a theme and a narrative structure. They started keeping a journal of everything they ate, and they paid attention to the ingredients of the food as well. Then one day, a way into the subject dawned on them. Woolf, who was in Sydney, Australia, working on another project, got an excited, late night wake-up-call from Ellis and Cheney. “Everything we eat is made of corn,” they told him. Beyond the obvious products like cereal, all kinds of beverages from soda to juice are infused with corn syrup. Even meat is affected, as cows are corn-fed. And the punch line? All of the corn we eat has almost no nutritional value.

All three men immediately saw a number of compelling visual and narrative possibilities. Corn, Woolf explains, “is the most venerated and mythologized plant. This is our national heritage. Hollywood images of the heartland, kindergarten myths of the Native Americans standing there with armfuls of corn when the pilgrims arrive!” If Ellis and Cheney had reported back that everything Americans ate had sorghum or potatoes listed on the package, Woolf doubts the project would have gone forward.

The film progresses as a series of episodes, following the filmmakers as they plant some corn seeds on an acre of rented land and watch them grow. As in the films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Ellis and Cheney (who are listed as the film’s co-producers) serve as the film’s main characters. In addition to sowing their own crops, the duo drives us past miles of cornfields, rural skylines dotted with grain elevators, and even highways featuring those ubiquitous McDonald’s arches. In one particularly affecting scene, the filmmakers buy a small toy farm at the garage sale of a hard-on-his-luck local farmer, and use the moment to illustrate the changing landscape, as family farms became industrial farms. In another, they attend a farm auction. (The acre of land they plant ultimately produces 200 bushels of corn, compared with the 40 or so bushels that was the common output of an acre in their great grandparents’ day—a neat illustration of the effects of modern technology on farming.)

If Ellis and Cheney are the film’s protagonists, the corn plant itself is afforded the visual treatment of a Hollywood star. “I wanted to shoot those cornfields lavishly,” says Woolf, rather than playing with ominous images that called to mind the visual language of, say, Children of the Corn or North By Northwest. Woolf says the idea was to have the imagery and the message contradict each other because it’s more compelling that way. The cornfields come across visually as beautiful, expansive, and sometimes overwhelming. The film’s most searing image comes when the camera pans over dunes of corn kernels that stretch as far as the eye can see. “This is America,” the film seems to say. These piles of yellow bits, the barns full of cattle that eat it, and the $1 burger that results are as American as the small farming towns that we think of as producing them—although as King Corn shows us, when you actually go to these towns, you just don’t see many farmers these days.

The symbolism is constant but not heavy-handed. One of the most effective scenes occurs when the town of Greene burns down an antique corn storage structure to make way for a massive cement replacement structure. The slow beginnings of smoke followed by a sudden collapse of wooden planks in corrosive flames adds energy and tension to the film, especially given that the images of destruction are set against a bucolic landscape. Conveying the idea of change and loss through visual metaphor is more effective than, say, conveying the same idea through an interview with a farmer who chokes back tears.

In an interesting and unorthodox narrative touch, the film leaves Iowa briefly. In the quest to find out where their harvest might end up, Ellis and Cheney then take us across the country to Brooklyn, New York, to meet a diabetic, formerly obese cab driver (he’s got pictures!) who is the living embodiment of the corn-fed diet. He drives the filmmakers from bodega to bodega, showing them store shelves filled with soda. The scene feels completely disconnected from the fields of Iowa, but on closer inspection of the drink bottle nutrition information we discover something familiar, of course. As the film’s promotional materials tell us, 66 percent of the high fructose corn syrup consumed by Americans comes from soda pop, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

It should be noted that, in addition to gorgeous visuals and clever stunts, King Corn does an impressive job of asking pointed questions, showing the process of seeking out the answers, and providing a string of facts and statistics about corn, the history of corn subsidies, and the health effects of a corn-based diet, without bullying the audience. Ellis and Cheney talk to a number of scientists, academics, and farmers, who teach them about the agriculture and economy of corn.

One significant expert interview serves as the film’s climax. In a scene reminiscent of the Charlton Heston interview in Bowling for Columbine, Ellis and Cheney—dressed to the nines in conservative suits—knock on the smart-looking front door of Earl Butts. Thanks to archival footage used earlier in the film, the audience already knows that Butts served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1970s, when the government first started offering farm subsidies to ensure that Americans would have access to cheap food. Ellis and Cheney enter Butts’s home to find an ancient man sitting innocuously on a couch. He answers their questions about the societal and political implications of farm subsidies forthrightly, and the sequence ends without rancor.

That a film about an idea should end without a gotcha moment is perhaps no surprise. Woolf hopes the result is provocative without being didactic or polemical. “I don’t see it as advocacy at all,” he says, because the idea of using film to go after someone or something in a political way “goes against my whole sense of filmmaking.” And after all, you can’t say he had much of an agenda. He started the project by sending Ellis and Cheney to Iowa with $5,000. “I had no idea what I was going to find,” says Woolf.

How did he know the subject of food would pay off? Woolf thinks that he has developed an acute story-finding sense that comes with years of practice, and a gut feeling that tells him when there’s a story worth telling. “When [a story idea] occurs to you,” he says, “it’s a question of how much you are willing to gamble.” In great documentary filmmaking, he says, what you set out with is one set of questions—in this case, “What do we eat?”—and what you end with is another set of questions—in this case, “What is it doing to us as a society?”

Erica Bernstein is a writer based in New York City.

Related Links:

Watch the film’s trailer.

To learn more about King Corn, visit the film’s official website.

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