Review by Kim Hollis
September 27, 2002
Fun fact: The kernels of corn that you eat are actually the ripe reproductive ovaries of the plant. Though Hybrid is a documentary rather than the sci-fi/horror film its title might imply, there's plenty of terror to be found in this lovingly-crafted elegy to a man whose life was devoted to the growth and development of corn.
The man in question is named Milford Beeghly, an Iowa farmer and early developer of hybrid seed corn. His story is told by director (and grandson) Monteith McCollum, who uses a variety of techniques to mesh his artistic vision with his obsessive grandfather's life tale. The result is a unique documentary that is alternately fascinating, peculiarly lovely, and disturbing.
I've seen one reviewer describe this film as "corn porn", and that is, in fact, an apt classification; however, there's a good deal more to it than just hot corn-on-corn action. Certainly one of the features of the film that will stand out in spectators' minds is the corncob mating dance, and there's little doubt that McCollum has done some spectacular artistic work throughout the film, using combinations of time-lapse photography and animation to create a singular viewing experience. The movie's heart, though, is really the larger-than-life Beeghly, with the film's best and most fascinating segments coming when he is on-screen.
Beeghly's biography unfolds with the odd story of his origins - his mother dressed him as a girl for the first few years of his life - and moves on to his early pioneering in the realm of hybrid seed corn development. Old photographs and an assortment of narrative techniques help to paint the picture of the farmer, along with some hilariously kitschy vintage television commercials where he hawks his own brand of seed.
Different sound qualities are used for the voice-overs. At times, they appear to be set in the current day, while at others the director has made them sound like they're coming over an old-timey radio. Beeghley's children pretty strongly elaborate on their father's preoccupation with corn, as it becomes quite apparent that he was far more interested in corn and working on his farm than getting to know his own family.
Supplementing the images and narration is a score written by the director himself, with a meld of countrified strings. The music sets the tone and atmosphere perfectly, and makes some of the other music that comes later in the film only that much more jarring (and more than a little disquieting).
There are some segments that will likely live on in nightmare format, so be forewarned. Beeghly's deep preoccupation with corn apparently didn't extend into the area of dental health; he never brushed his teeth. Instead, he used a toothpick every single day to clean them, and the process became so important to him that he invented a device to make the routine easier. Suffice it to say that his "tool" fits in quite nicely under the "corn porn" heading; it's unintentionally hilarious and simultaneously horrifying.
And that's not even the worst bit. For one long, drawn-out section of the film, Beeghly sings an entirely alarming song about drowning kittens, chortling all the way through. In and of itself, just singing a folksy song that was likely handed down from generation to generation probably wouldn't be so awful, but it does get worse, so anyone with delicate kitten/feline sensibilities would be well-advised to stay far away.
Still, the more execrable portions of the film all serve to paint the portrait of an atypical individual. Hybrid is a fine attempt at a new approach to presenting a fairly dry subject to viewers, and in the end, the documentary winds up making for some absorbing and compelling drama. Kudos to the director for having the gumption to take some risks and use some artistry in his creative vision; he is quite clearly his grandfather's grandson.