The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

King Corn achieves corniness, not meaning

Aaron Wolf’s “King Corn” very much wants to be the exciting culmination of various cultural developments in the last decade. It’s an exposé about the corn and meat industries at a time in which the “vote with your fork” sensibility has become crucial to our survival. Works like “Supersize Me,” “Fast Food Nation,” and “Food Inc.” have exposed more than the insidiousness of our large-scale food suppliers—they have taught Americans that our dietary and consumer choices have profound social, financial and environmental ramifications. From the unsanitary conditions that cows are raised in to the 70 percent of our national antibiotic expenses that goes into keeping them alive in such squalor, these journalistic investigations have demonstrated that our nation’s gluttony has consequences far beyond our waistlines.
One can see why a young documentarian like Wolf would want to explore these issues. Less admirable is his desire to capitalize on another pop-culture development, specifically tied to documentary films—namely the use of the funny, everyman narrator, uncovering the hypocrisies in American life without getting too puffed up about it (think Michael Moore). Here instead of a lone renegade, we have two Bostonian besties, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who are both mannishly handsome but share a vague aura of goofiness that makes you feel like they should be more amusing than they are.
The premise is simple: as these two average Joes, upon realizing how much of their average-Joe diets consists of corn—be it high-fructose corn syrup or the corn that goes into raising their beef—move out to Iowa and start growing an acre of their own corn. This narrative gimmick allows them to talk about various issues connected to the corn industry without seeming structurally messy.
The film takes great strains to emphasize just how irreverent this plan is. We get Cheney talking on his cell to one of his more conventional friends: “Yeah, we’re moving from Boston to Iowa. We’re gonna raise an acre of corn, see what happens… But what about you? How’s your high paying job?” Even more blatantly artificial is the shot of an Iowan farmer reading a letter from Ellis and Cheney about their plan to come visit his farm, making the viewer quickly wonder how there’s already a cameraman at the farm to view this reading.
These indulgences may seem pretty innocuous, and many of them are, but their cumulative effect is to weaken any sense of political or moral indignation one would expect from the matters at hand. The film throws together a decent sum of information regarding the catastrophes the meat and corn industries perpetuate, yet it seems afraid to organize all this material into a unified, charged statement. Our two protagonists want so clearly to be affable that they skirt the obvious fact that the story they’re trying to tell simply demands a more emotional engagement. They can only play it cool for so long before the act seems underwhelming and perhaps even irresponsible.
The best book I’ve encountered on the food industry is Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Pollan discusses in great depth the rise of massive corn monocultures in place of the family farm and the seemingly endless cultural metastasis that has resulted from this revolution. The author does not need to ‘play’ charming everyman because he is charming—and gracefully funny. And yet he is not afraid to probe on an emotional and almost spiritual level into the question of what our relationship to the food on our plate should be. That book presented a unified and expanding experience. “King Corn,” instead, presents a smattering of interesting data, diluted by tacky gags and childish manipulations.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *