Hybrid
review by Elias Savada, 2 November 2002

Able to leap tall corn stalks in a single bound, Hybrid had earned a bushel of recognition from a host of film festivals (Slamdance, San Francisco, Atlanta, Newport, et al), and has been welcomed in numerous cities. Unfortunately for local arthouse filmgoers in my neck of the woods, Washington, DC, has not been one of them. Yes, it's an eccentric piece, starting out with ragged, scratchy silent footage overlaid with the ruminations of director Monteith McCollum's grandfather, Milford Beeghly, an Iowa farmer who believes his seeds of peace -- those which grow into a golden hybrid corn -- can save the earth and its starving millions from the war and anarchy that generally accompany such hunger.

Notwithstanding it's political implications, the film's inventive, non-conventional, and often animated styling (briefly using a shot-through-burlap approach I last saw on a film from 1927) is an absorbing quiltwork of black-and-white images edited together by Ariana Gerstein, an experimental filmmaker and collage artist, with McCollum juxtaposing stark, grainy time-lapsed, landscapes with his ancestors' voices on the soundtrack. These voicings, some made years earlier, sound very much like private radio broadcasts about the family and its sometimes unusual relationships. In one instance, sandwiched between a Japanese beetle struggling to right itself and a worm squirming through the soil is heard (presumably from the director himself), "Would you say he was closer to corn than his family?" Milford's daughter quickly, yet ruefully answers the interviewer "Oh definitely. That was his whole life."

McCollum's hypnotic imagery is enlightened by his own score, an improvised blend of violin, viola, squeeze box, zither, and percussion that heighten the intended dour, melancholic air.

Of course in a film all about corn there is bound to be some corny material, like a 1950s television commercial promoting the high-yield, disease-resistant, trademarked Beeghley's Best Hybrid seed, in which the bespectacled Wilford happens to drop in (he was in the neighborhood) to promote his product. To keep the action interesting, there's even some sex tossed in! In discussing the mating habits of corn, we learn that eating corn on the cob is the equivalent of eating fertilized corn ovaries. Gives a new meaning to the concept of oral sex, eh? And get this: Corn has a tendency to play with itself! What next, corn orgies? (Yup.) This can get more confusing than 12th grade physics.

Which leads to more about the interesting life of Wilford, his determination and sanity. His son talks of dad hiding his hybrid attempts behind the family barn (wherein the director shows two ears of corn rubbing up against each other on the earthen floor) for fear of ridicule. Yet, through hail, drought, the slow recovery from the Great Depression, and other discouragements in the 1930s, the pioneer persisted and succeeded.

Two of Wilford's three children go on camera extensively. That Wilford and his three brothers were generally a laconic bunch, keeping their comments to a minimum, exacerbated Wilford's emotional distancing from his wife. That a daughter, still in therapy, didn't really get to know her well-traveled, constantly-on-the-road, closed-lipped father until well into her 40s.

The family's oddities are as obvious as an old family photo of Wilford, as a child, dressed as a girl (because his mother had wanted a daughter and apparently called him Mildred), his long curly hair caressing his shoulders, covered by a white lacy frock. They're curious about all the pointed questions, in much the way Alan Berliner's father was in that filmmaker's family history documentary Nobody's Business, although the subjects here are much more gracious with their time.

As the 92-minute film starts its second third, the filmmaker chronicles the early days of hybridization. In this short, kinetic segment, using extensive animation of corn kernels and other objects over still photographs, we overhear Wilford's lecture on inbreeding. This soon evolves into a brief history of the family business (which closed in 1974), focusing on the weathered faces of the workers and the ghostly images of past profitability.

Then there are those lovely little promotional items that businesses offer their salesmen and best customers. Milford's son showcases a push-down toothpick dispenser -- Milford having always picked but never brushed -- that looks strikingly like a sexual aid. Or Milford's expertise as a champion hog-caller. And yes, there's also a corn striptease. Ah the things you can find to entertain yourself in the American Midwest are indeed varied.

A highly unusual hayride through the cornfields of old, Hybrid showcases the odd and eccentric relics of a past culled from a family scrapbook filled barnyard cobwebs and the echoes of mislaid affections. Milford, shown silently suffering in his sickbed as he approached his 100th birthday, passed away in January 2001, just shy of his 103rd. Quite a fighter. With Hybrid, grandson/director McCollum insures that his granddad will always be with us, clad in his overalls and a corporate-embossed hat, at play in the cornfields of the lord. That's just outside of Pierson, Iowa.

Directed by:
Monteith McCollum

Rating:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian
.

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