“Everything on your plate is corn.” This pronouncement by Professor Michael Pollan of the University of California more or less sums up the point of King Corn, an amiable documentary about corn’s dominance in the U.S. economy. The not-quite-a-quest format is established in the first moments, as Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis scuffling along linoleum hallways, en route to someone’s office. “When my best friend Curtis and I graduated from college,” Ian’s voiceover informs you, “We thought we were done with professors.” But lo, they’ve decided to visit one, Steve Macko by name, head of the Macko Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory, in order to ask questions about life and death.
Specifically, Curtis explains, they’ve become worried that they’re part of the first U.S. generation “at risk of having a shorter lifespan than our parents.” Wait a beat: “And it was because of what we ate.”
Following the trails blazed by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Ellis and Cheney mean to pursue this problem, using themselves as guides through the thicket of American agricultural and business practices, revealing that… it’s all based on money. Along the way, they also find that the typical American diet is unhealthy. At least if you gauge typical by what they eat, indicated by a brief montage-and-scribbled-list of cinnamon rolls, pork sandwiches, fries, sloppy joes, sausage patties, and “juicy, creamy donuts.” Gee, they marvel, this looks bad!
A few lab tests at Macko reveal that what they’re eating has affected their bodily compositions, and moreover, that they are made of mostly corn. Given their preferences for meat and sugary products, this gives pause. And it also gives a point of departure for the documentary to follow. Per the currently popular “body adventure” format (see also: reality TV), Ellis and Cheney embark on a project that involves travel: they leave the East Coast for Iowa, and set up to plant corn on an acre of land for a year. This plan grants a neat month-by-month structure, markable on screen, as well as some excellent footage of the beautiful land out there, what with the seasons changing in poetic wide shots.
“For some reason,” they muse, “We felt drawn to the Midwest,” as the camera shows them gazing on giant trucks and ordering biscuits with gravy. Once ensconced in Greene, Iowa (pop. 1015), the boys solicit advice and on-camera expertise. They visit the Mitchell Corn Palace (all décor made of colored corn, with encouragement for free: “Everything starts out as a [email protected]” says the director as they leave). Then, having arrived in town in February — whiteness as far as the eye can see — they’re informed, “On the modern farm, you don’t have to wait for the snow to melt before you can get to work.” And so the film launches into a kind of instructive mode, as Ian and Curtis learn what type of corn to plant, how to measure their acre, which machines to use, and when to do what. They also get some gently framed political background, concerning farm subsidies and the damage done in 1973 by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s edict to mass produce via cost-saving technologies, thus sending small farmers into increasingly dire straits.
While they learn a few details about distant relatives (both coincidentally have great grandfathers or third cousins who farmed in Iowa), the film doesn’t grant this almost interesting storyline a chance to take off. Instead, the boys step to the background, their seemingly interchangeable and frankly bland affects giving way to the focus on Big Bad Corn.
This story has to do with engineering. “Industrialized corn,” say Pollan, is all about yield. Designed now so plants grow closer together, the new corn is “kind of an urban creature, it lives in these cities of corn.” All this yield, the boys discover, is not for direct human consumption, but more often, for feedlots. Cattle are increasingly not grazing their way into “fatted” states, but are instead locked into stalls and fed corn — usually ethanol byproduct, a “flaky” substance that “the livestock likes,” according to one feedlot manager. A trip to Bob Bledsoe’s Bledsoe Cattle Company grants extended discussion of the industry. And a shot of cows chewing in their metal headlocks, ears tagged because all they mean in the world are the slabs they become, suggests the system’s moral ambiguity, and a subsequent sequence points out the diseases they contract, due to the fact that they are “not meant” to eat only corn.
Corn’s toxic effects extend beyond the cattle it helps to rush to market. The movie reveals as well the effects of corn syrup, which Ian and Curtis find in every item they check in one convenience store aisle. When they seek out the formula for high fructose corn syrup, they’re told that no cameras are allowed in any plants: Audrae Erickson, spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association, says, “It’s as much about the security of the food as it is your personal safety,” though neither point seems clear. (An insert of the boys nodding and looking perplexed on the other side of her desk supports our inclination to mistrust her.)
A super-effective sweetener, it’s used in sodas, an easy target that takes multiple hits, especially when the boys travel to Brooklyn and ride with a cab driver. His life story — not to mention those of his immediate family — is shaped by sugar and corn syrup, as most everyone suffers from diabetes. A doctor explains that nearly one in eight New Yorkers has Type 2 diabetes, with no cure in sight, only management. Rethinking their year’s work as producing “essentially an acre of sugar,” Ellis and Cheney learn as well that “cost has a lot to do with what people buy,” and the cheaper products tend to be made with lots of corn syrup. Corn’s legacy stretches into our future, the film suggests, with no indication of a decrease in empire.