ND/NF REVIEW: Children of the Corn; McCollum's Dazzling Doc-Dream "Hybrid"
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/04.03.01) -- The opening image of Monteith McCollum's "Hybrid," which flicker-flits its way to life on screen as though it might be the first such image ever to do so, is of a handful of corn seeds, stuttering, pulsing, multiplying. The hand belongs to Milford Beeghly, a Pierson, Iowa corn farmer and lay geneticist who, in the 1930s, began to experiment with the hybridization of corn seeds. And Beeghly is the grandfather of McCollum, the filmmaker-savant who began this major study of American farm-belt culture (and its loss) with a simple impetus: to better acquaint himself with a man who had remained a wriggling enigma to his family for most of his centenarian life. (Beeghly died just this year at the age of 102, and grows from 95 to 100 over the course of the film, which was 7 years in the making.)
But "Hybrid" is located far from the realm of genteel biographical inquiry. This staggering original -- this constructivist fever dream construed by the love child of Dziga Vertov and Jon Jost -- is a rare kind of camera-stylo filmmaking: a plunging into the sense memory of a filmmaker burrowing deep inside his own inner voice and uncovering deep-set truths. It is a rigorously inventive work that defies classification, except to the extent that its impetuousness is perfectly encapsulated by the precisely chosen title (which is also a reference to the film's juxtaposition of depression-era agricultural eminence against the rise of urbanization). And McCollum, who spent much of his own childhood on Beeghly's farm, is never content to present an image that doesn't challenge accepted associations of light and sound and space.
A few, trenchantly lyrical moments set the tone: an abandoned tire swing decaying in the foreground of a chiaroscuro Grant Wood scene; the primal, unadorned beauty of corn silks unfolding, invoked as a symbol of unfettered fertility; Beeghly alone in his cornfield, blending so entirely into his surroundings that McCollum must strain to identify him. The unifying sentiment is that Beeghly's life and, more broadly, farm-belt life, is a brash contradiction in terms -- a teeming rally against a sweeping tide of "progress," the force of which derives, in part, from the inventiveness of men like Beeghly. And much of what makes "Hybrid" so profoundly moving is the elegiacal consideration that Beeghly's very deployment of corn hybridization may have been the first stone cast in the rippling pool of agricultural downsizing.
The more burdensome conflict, however, particularly in the film's first half, is of Beeghly's own psychology -- the remoteness from his own wife and children compared with his devoutness to the earth and soil, to which he seems umbilically tied. It's not a surprise, really: with his broad brow, beady, deep-set eyes and trunk-like torso, Beeghly appears, physically, closer to flora than fauna -- a mighty Redwood uprooted and left adrift in the "civilized world." He's a subject indelibly fit for pictures: a spry chameleon, resting stone-like and immobile in a conventional documentary pose one moment, doubling over in hysterical tears as he scats his way through a childhood nursery rhyme the next. He appears a window into another era. But the effects of Beeghly's character also engulf and destruct, and when his grown daughter appears on screen, relating humorous anecdotes about her dad and explaining her own ignorance about the work that made him famous, her transparent midwestern perkiness conceals a paternal love denied.
As flooring as McCollum's affectionate tribute to (and astute deconstruction of) Beeghly can be, it is but one facet of a complex personal, deeply inward mise-en-scene: a bric-a-brac assembly, suggesting a kind of found art -- the disparate aesthetics so sprawling, so alive, so venturesome that nothing is allowed to seem preconfigured. At length, McCollum interviews Beeghly himself and the members of his immediate family, cropping their faces in off-center close-ups that have the intimacy of Bresson, twisting the raw materials of documentary into something startling. A newsreel shot of tractors plowing a corn-filled landscape gives way to the filmmaker's own hand, rushing one strip of film out of view so that another may be put in its place, contextualizing the unkind ravages of time. A ragged, aged photograph is cropped and resized by McCollum's camera-eye to the point of exhaustion, suggesting hundreds, if not thousands more of cinematic stories to be told.
There is also the arrangement of arcane, outmoded camera techniques (grainy, 16mm black-and-white; found objects used as dollies and cranes), giving lift to the vintage film clips (of the Depression, of Beeghly) that are seamlessly interspersed throughout. And there is an impish wit, bringing Beeghly's corn itself to life via a series of intricate stop-motion animations, conceived and executed by McCollum. It's partly a levitating, welcome humor, examining the mating rituals of the crop with gleeful personification; but more so, it's the consuming metaphor for a romance -- between Beeghly and his hybrid seed corn -- that may be one of the most pure and eternal in all of cinema.
The resultant rush of sensory images overpowers and blurs the lines between documentary, narrative and experimental forms of filmmaking in a way that, far from the gimmickry of such current causes celebres as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Memento," truly expands the boundaries of cinematic language. Does that make "Hybrid" feel a bit overstuffed? Of course. It's a wildly spinning bottle-rocket of a movie, as furtive as Beeghly himself, spewing its violent sparks in so many directions that it becomes impossible to thoroughly follow-through in a mere 90 minutes. By the final moments, we have traveled nearly full-circle from an investigation of Beeghly and the farm-belt to a deeply-felt reckoning of McCollum's own mortality. And if McCollum never comes to fully understand Beeghly's motivations, he does come to respect him as an icon of all that is wondrous and horrible about human endeavors.
"Hybrid," which began life in an Iowa cornfield and segued into adolescence on an upstate New York editing table, only takes its final shape in the viewer's mind, long after its images have faded. But McCollum makes taking that journey -- that tireless search for elusive meaning -- thrilling, both for its insight and for its showcasing of a collective of movie-drunk aesthetes: McCollum himself, who shot much of the film, and composed and co-performed the score (a mournful pastorale); his wife, Ariana Gerstein, herself an experimental filmmaker, who edited; and Mike Jarmon, who co-shot and did much of the film's sound design. This work is the promise of bold things to come.
[Scott Foundas is a contributing critic to indieWIRE.]