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Saturday, December 19, 2009

King Corn

The 2005 documentary King Corn tells the story of Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, two friends who abandon their Northeastern livelihoods for the wide-open spaces and, you guessed it, cornfields of Iowa. Their mission is deceptively simple, grow an acre of corn and follow is dispersion into the American food system.

Upon initially reading the plot synopsis I pictured a film about two awkward Bostonians stumbling around in the mud in a comical impersonation of farmers. Reality, as is usual, was quite different. Because of government subsidies on certain crops more product grown equals more money. So, as King Corn depicts, the farming process is largely automated giving Cheney and Ellis large amounts of downtime which they fill with side-trips to cattle ranches and universities and (pardon the pun) corny animations in an attempt to show what happens to America's favorite crop once it is harvested.

The main thing that differentiates King Corn from most documentaries is that there is no clear agenda on the part of the filmmakers. They simply present the corn-growing process (along with some alarming facts) and let the viewer decide what to take from it all. Do we trust the diabetes alarmists, or do we trust the guy that helped jump-start this era of farm subsidies? They both make interesting points.

Despite some of the intriguing journeys the movie takes the subject matter is ultimately rather dull. The main protagonists are vaguely entertaining, but unlike someone like Michael Moore I wouldn't have wanted to spend the movie's full running length watching them pontificate on the importance of their cornfield. I'd much rather have spent some more time with the supporting characters that dot the landscape. Also, possibly in an attempt to remain fair and balanced, they don't explain some of the movies larger mysteries. Why, for instance, is their host selling off his property at the film's conclusion?

In the end this film is a lot like the place it's set in. There is nothing earth-shattering happening there, but the little things certainly make a lot of ripples.


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