King Corn

Yo dude, let’s make a documentary!
Aaron Woolf
Ian Cheney, Curt Ellis, Earl L. Butz
The Setup: 
Did you know that corn syrup is in, like, everything?

A lot of factors have affected the world of documentaries in the past few years. First, Michael Moore came along with the idea of presenting serious information with a lot of fun graphics and cartoons, as well as placing himself front-and-center as an audience surrogate that goes along, learning as we learn. Then there is the Morgan Spurlock idea of engaging in a project that will serve as a framework for delivering information and ideas. And finally, because of Moore and Spurlock’s popular documentaries, a ton more documentaries have been flooding out, many that adopt the proven strategies of the above-mentioned hits. But do those strategies work for every documentary?

Okay, second idea: In the rush to make learning “fun!” and avoid totally boring things like reading, a variety of new methods have sprung up to deliver information without the receiver having to do anything that takes any kind of effort and without excitement ever dropping for a second—like the vast wastelands of the Discovery or History channels, or audio guides in museums, or documentaries like this. I had a bit of a revelation one day in a museum, in which I realized that I could skim the text accompanying a piece to glean the information I wanted in about ten seconds, whereas listening to the audio guide, it would take me two to three minutes, after I’d waded through the music they’ve included to set up the scene and time period, maybe the historical street sounds or native chants, then listened to the full narration be read aloud, including the parts I’m not interested in. And how could I forget the Discovery Channel special on the whaleship Essex that fluffed out so much of its running time with “atmospheric” shots of Nantucket cottages and the rocky seaside and ropes and pulleys and rusty harpoons, which lasted an hour, while the amount of information it delivered could have been read in five minutes. So it struck me that while audio guides and documentaries are considered low-effort time-saving devices, they actually take considerably MORE time to get through than it would to simply read. The only problem is, reading requires, you know, READING, as well as an ability to sustain one’s attention for longer than 15 seconds, both of which seem to be in short supply these days.

Both of which bring us directly to King Corn. I’ve been interested in seeing this movie since it came out, eager to discover how high-fructose corn syrup became the dominant sweetener in this country and to be put into almost everything we eat. Unfortunately, however, I rented this movie seeking information, and what we have here is 10 minutes of information frothed up to 90 minutes.

So these two douches who have decided that they are documentary leading-man material, have read a factoid that their generation is the first that is likely to live less long than their parents, mostly because of their diet. So they go to have the DNA in their hair tested, because hair supplies a record of what you’ve eaten. They learn to their fake surprise that most of what appears is corn, so they… decide to farm an acre of their own corn?

Yeah, pretty much. This gives them a Spurlock-like “project” to engage in which will, theoretically, illuminate the process of corn farming and following all that corn to its place in the myriad products it’s in. First we have a farmer pretend to have just received their letter saying they want to farm an acre of corn. The two main guys, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, move out to Iowa in the dead of winter. They hit snowballs with a paddle! They visit the Corn Palace! They chat with the lady at the diner! We get a large amount of information on Cheney’s family history as Iowa corn farmers—which is about as interesting as the family history of any people you don’t know and who have not affected the world in any measurable way. By eight minutes in, I was fast-forwarding. When the weather gets warmer, they buy fertilizer! They plant seeds! They climb up huge hills of corn—and slide down them! It’s SO enthralling! By this time I am literally yelling at my television: “Is there going to be ANY information in this movie?” Then they interview a dude eating McDonalds in a parking lot! When there are small snatches of information, they are illustrated by little stop-motion animated kids farmer toys or kernels of corn on a map. We also get much footage of the guys carefully placing kernels of corn in patterns outside their toy barns. Pretty much anything to waste time. These guys are not exactly trained actors, either, and many of the situations they’re in are painfully disingenuous as they pretend to be experiencing something for the first time or really calculating something by laying kernels of corn out across a green tabletop. Then, at 45 minutes in [that is, halfway] they learn that there’s no way to track their corn through the entire system, making the first 45 minutes of this movie ENTIRELY POINTLESS FILLER. If you do end up watching this, which is not advised, I would just go ahead and skip the entire first half.

Around an hour in, we’ve started to get some information: In the 70s, the government adopted a policy of subsidizing farmers, resulting in massive harvests, more than we could possibly eat. This drove the costs of food down, and people became unwilling to pay much for food. Thus, for example, beef from healthy grain-fed cows is more expensive than from less-healthy corn-fed cows, so all we get is the corn-fed variety. The movie points out that the cows we eat are slaughtered about a month before the point they would have died from ulcers from eating corn. American corn has also been genetically-engineered to be mostly sugar and little nutrition. In an effort to find something to do with all of this corn the government is paying farmers to overproduce, high-fructose corn syrup has been integrated into nearly every food we eat, even items you wouldn’t expect, like bread, and high-fructose corn syrup offers no nutritional value and is extremely fattening. It also doesn’t give your body that “full” feeling, so you are more likely to eat more, playing an important part in the rise of obesity and diabetes.

Now, how long did it take you to read that paragraph? A minute, maybe two? That leaves you 88 minutes left to do whatever you want, time which you would have wasted had you watched this movie. Because that paragraph contains roughly ALL the interesting information this movie has to deliver. Once we got to the hour mark, I sort of thought “Okay, now we’re going to start actually learning something,” but NO, the last half-hour is as much of an intellectual wasteland as the first. We interview a cab driver who, like, totally used to be real fat—and he drank a lot of soda, too! The lead douches find they aren’t allowed into the high-fructose corn syrup factories [did they do ANY planning for this movie?], so they’re gonna make it at home! This proves to be every bit as revealing as you might imagine.

Then we have footage of cows! Footage of fields! Footage of the town grain elevator! Then THE SAME footage of the grain elevator, but in grainy black and white! Footage of the douches! More footage of the douches! Still more footage of the douches! The farmers celebrating a big harvest! Footage of the douches with the farmers! You can start to amuse yourself—in the absence of any intellectual stimulation—by imagining these guys trying to think of things they could film in order to fill up time. By the time they go spend the night in the corn field for the simple reason of having something else to do to fill time, I was apoplectic. For God’s sake, WHAT did they do for an entire year in Iowa?

I really hope everyone involved in this movie made a lot of money on it and secured directing gigs or whatever, because then I could respect it as a clever Blair Witch-style hoax film that successfully made them rich for nothing. As it is, this, without doubt, is the absolute worst documentary I have ever seen in my entire life. Silly, old-fashioned me, I sort of thought you made a documentary because you had something to SAY, not just because YOU want to be a filmmaker and not have to work in a dreary office job. By the end, I wanted to get the two leads [and you too, director Aaron Woolf, although you had the sense to stay off-camera], tie them all up, and BASH THEIR SKULLS IN WITH A SLEDGEHAMMER. I hope you guys enjoyed your year drinking in Iowa. Please don’t ever make another film, and do not ever set foot in my neighborhood, or I swear to god I will cut you.

Should you watch it: 

No! It should be burned!