Hybrid, which plays this Tuesday (March 26) at the Brattle, is a movie Iíve skipped away from at more than one film festival, ignoring the impassioned recommendations of friends with taste. Now Iíve watched it, and Iím endorsing Hybrid also, knowing Iíll 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, though (will this make you see it?), is about far more than corn.
Hereís what you get for your money: filmmaker Monteith McCollumís tender, thoughtful, homage to his crusty grandpa Milford Beeghly, a lifetime 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 when you consider that 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 heís 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 by a jury headed by John Philip Sousa. As time passed, though, it became corn and corn only.
Beeghly married late and had three children. His wife grew bitter; his children were ignored. All agreed that 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 he did his kids. "They have genes and chromosomes," he explained. "A personality."
The cool part: in his 90s, Beeghly evolved. After his unhappy wife died, he actually got lonely. Although still corn-crazy, he went calling on Alice, a widowed farm woman a country mile down the road ó "a nice-looking gal," he described her. But he was too shy to ask her to marry him. Fortunately, one of his grown daughters intervened and set up the wedding. Would her dad agree to matrimony? "Yeah," the daughter recalled, "itíd be all right with him."
And so Milford and Alice had their day in church, and thatís in the film. As marrieds, they get off on teasing each other. They also sit in the fields and read Shakespeare plays back and forth. Yep, the old-old-old-timer is loosening up at last. After a near-death bout with pneumonia, the never-sick Beeghly (he has all his teeth) recovered enough to be there at his 100th birthday party, and thatís also in the film. He 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." This Beeghly is a funny, entertaining guy; you can only marvel at the way he horses 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 it devoted to abstract montages of nature and farm animals. Corn is photographed often, and in unusual, complex ways. Thereís also some amusing í50s found footage, including primitive, boosterish commercials for Beeghlyís corn seed. Letís end in praise of Beeghlyís national shrine of a voice: Americans, alas, donít inflect in his oratorical way anymore. I think of radio in the mid 1930s, maybe some Republican Midwesterner saying, "FDR is ruining the country. Vote Alf Landon for your president!"
CHEN JIANJUNíS HERDSMEN, which plays at the Museum of Fine Arts March 27 and 31 and April 4 and 6, offers a rare opportunity to see a mainland Chinese TV documentary, this one following a nomadic Kazakh family who live in Chinaís westernmost province, Xinjiang. The cinematography is quite extraordinary, with sheep, camels, horses, and people trekking through mind-boggling vistas. But the storytelling is formless. We learn practically nothing about the family we stay with on camera except that they are tight-knit and Islamic, they seem friendly, and they move about a lot. The most emotional scene in the film is not even about our protagonists; it shows the saving of a lost, in-shock horse.