Hybrid is a movie I've skipped away from at more than one film festival, ignoring the impassioned recommendations of friends with taste. Now I've watched it, and I'm endorsing Hybrid also, knowing I'll get similar resistance from you, gentle readers. Who imagines a big film night out enmeshed in an experimental documentary about corn? You heard me: corn. Hybrid corn, though (will this make you see it?) it's about far more than corn.
Here's what you get for your dollars: filmmaker Monteith McCollum's tender, thoughtful, homage to his crusty grandpa Milford Beeghly, a life-time farmer responsible for making Iowa corn sweet and delicious through obsessive genetic tamperings in the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of war, Beeghly explains, he offered "seeds of peace, living golden seeds you can hold in your hand and plant in the earth." What he practiced was "plant incest," nocturnal messing between inbred husks (male) and cobs (female). Corn on the cob?
"A mouthful of ripened ovaries."
Beeghly, 99 years old during most of the shooting, is a piece of work with an astonishing life, considering he never left rural Iowa. Talk about inbred! When he was a wee turn-of-the-century tot, he was gussied up in dresses by his mother, who kept his hair shoulder-length and passed him off as "Mildred." But Mildred became Milford upon entering school, and stayed Milford since: an unsentimental, laconic man with a flat top and dark-rimmed glasses. For a time as a younger fellow, he had other interests, including pig breeding; and he was once crowned hog hollering champ of Iowa from a jury headed by John Philip Sousa. Yet, as time passed, it became corn and corn only.
Beeghly married late, and had three children. His wife got embittered, his children were ignored. All agreed, he was caught up with his crop. "The best thing there is is to take a walk in the fields and see how nature is doing," he declared. He understood his corn stalks better as individuals than his kids. "They have genes and chromosomes," he explained. "A personality."
The cool part: Beeghly, in his 90s, evolved. After his unhappy wife died, he actually got lonely. Though still corn-crazy, he went calling on Alice, a widowed farm woman a country mile down the road, "a nice-looking gal," he described her. However, he was too shy with words to ask her to marry him. Fortunately, one of Beeghly's grown daughters intervened and set a wedding. Would her dad agree to matrimony? "Yeah," the daughter recalled, "It'd be all right with him."
And so Milford and Alice had their day in church, which is in the film. As marrieds, the two of them get off on teasing each other. They also sit in the fields and read Shakespeare plays back and forth. Yep, the old-old-oldtimer is loosening up at last. After a near-death bout of pneumonia, the never-sick Beeghly (he has all his teeth) recovered enough to be there at his 100th birthday party, also in the film. Beeghly kissed well-wishers, ate a hearty paper plate of food, and joked about his cane: "If people get too tough on me, I hit them on the head." Finally, Beeghly is a funny, entertaining guy. Marvel at him horsing around for the camera, singing some lachrymose vaudeville ditty about drowning kittens in a well.
I mentioned that this is an experimental documentary, and so it is, shot by McCollum in grainy black-and-white, and with much of the film devoted to abstract montages of nature and farm animals. Corn is photographed often, and in unusual, complex ways. There's also amusing 1950s found footage, including, produced for Iowa TV, primitive, boosterish commercials for Beeghly's corn seed.
Let's end in praise of Beeghly's national shrine of a voice: Americans, alas, don't inflect in his oratorical way anymore. I think radio in the mid-1930s, maybe some Republican midwesterner saying "FDR is ruining the country. Vote Alf Landon for your President!"
(Boston Phoenix - March, 2002)