Giving Yellow Journalism a Good Name

In their documentary
In their documentary "King Corn," Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney dig into a food production system gone awry. (By Sam Cullman)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Joining a noble tradition of fine muckraking documentaries about where cheap stuff comes from, "King Corn" pulls the husk off the scandal of modern food production, specifically the industrialized, subsidized, largely mythologized world of American corn.

As "King Corn" opens, recent Yale graduates Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis are visiting an isotope lab, where a friendly analyst examines strands of their hair and reveals that carbon dating suggests they originated from corn. Bemused, the two decide to travel to Iowa, find a farmer willing to lease them a portion of his land and find out "how an acre of corn could get from a field in Iowa to our hair."

With what turns out to be signature wit and pith, the two land in the town of Greene (pop. 1,015), where, in a wild coincidence, both their great-grandfathers once lived. As Cheney and Ellis proceed to rent, sow, tend and finally harvest their little acre, their education about how technological progress, government grants and consumer demand for cheap food have redefined Iowa's agriculture dovetails with a fascinating journey back to their own roots.

Directed by Aaron Woolf and narrated by Cheney and Ellis in alternating voice-overs, "King Corn" recalls such groundbreaking documentaries as "Super Size Me" and "Darwin's Nightmare," along with Richard Linklater's fictionalized "Fast Food Nation," in its indictment of a food production system gone horribly awry.

After they bemusedly collect an installment on their $28-per-acre government subsidy, they proceed to set 31,000 genetically modified corn kernels into their plot, then spray it with herbicide to get rid of weeds. ("The first weed we found was -- weed!" they recall, as one of them holds up a marijuana plant.) After waiting patiently for months, they finally taste the fruits of their labor, only to discover that what they've planted is inedible. Their corn -- like most of Iowa's harvest -- isn't intended to be slathered with butter and devoured, but more likely will be used to produce ethanol, cattle feed and high-fructose corn syrup.

Inspired by "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan (who shows up for incisive commentaries), "King Corn" traces the statistically likely path that an ear of Iowa corn might take, from the cow confinement operations of eastern Colorado to a bottle of soda pop in Brooklyn, where Type 2 diabetes is epidemic. Gorgeously filmed in digital video and Super-8, using clever stop-motion corn kernel animation and a lyrical score by the "anti-folk" band the WoWz, "King Corn" takes what could be a tiresome agri-civics lesson and delivers a lively, funny, sad and even poetic treatise on the reality behind America's cherished self-image as the breadbasket of the world.

In large part, "King Corn" succeeds because Cheney and Ellis are such engaging guides on an odyssey that takes them from the Midwest at its small-town best to the ulcerated stomach of a corn-fed cow (they're genetically designed to eat grass). When they track down Earl Butz, the Nixon-era architect of the current government subsidy system, they go gently, allowing him to remind viewers that Americans now spend 16 percent of their income on food, a figure his Depression-era family would have envied.

Still, "King Corn" dares to ask whether low prices come at too exorbitant a cost -- environmentally, socially and to our public health. We might be better fed as a nation, but we're less well nourished. As one expert opines of contemporary farm bills, "We subsidize the Happy Meals, we don't subsidize the healthy ones." All of these points, as well as several more subtle ones, are made in "King Corn" by way of a terrific story and superb production values. It should be required viewing before going into a supermarket, McDonald's or your very own refrigerator.

King Corn (88 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains a graphic image of that cow's stomach.

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