Hybrid directed by Monteith McCollum, with Milford Beeghly, Alice Beeghly, Weyland Beeghly, Beverlee Beeghly and Bonnie Nigro. A Vagrant Films release. 92 minutes. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 95. Rating: NNN
Monteith McCollum is a child of the corn. He's spent the last six years making Hybrid, a documentary about the hybridization of corn and the man who helped pioneer the technique, his grandfather, Milford Beeghly.
It may not sound all that interesting, but first-time filmmaker McCollum surprises with his sad, meditative study of an obsessed man who had a better relationship with his plants than with his own wife and kids.
Hybrid begins with poetic shots of the Midwest, filmed in black-and-white and accompanied by a lone violin. The old instrument was once used on the Lawrence Welk Show, and Monteith improvised and recorded the score himself .
The moody landscapes are interspersed with interviews with Milford's kids, who admit they were never close to their dad, who spent all his time fiddling with corn kernels.
In rare TV commercials shot on 16mm in the 50s, Milford can be seen hawking his hybrid seed corn. And then we meet the present-day Milford, a 100-year-old still dreaming of corn. He remarried at 94 and fought off a near-fatal bout of pneumonia at 99.
McCollum's work possesses an Errol Morris quality. Like Morris, he's obsessed with his seemingly innocuous subject, and his intense interest invests Hybrid with a quirky reverence.
We start to consider the miracle of corn, how it grows and reproduces. During the 30s, Milford kept his experiments out of sight for fear of offending people who believed hybridization was a deviant practice and a sin.
McCollum also likes to move back and forth through time. An interview with a 94-year-old Milford is intercut with another interview done six years later. It's a confusing tactic; I imagine McCollum wants to keep us awake and processing, for fear he might be boring us.
But he needn't have worried. We don't need jumps in time to stay engaged. By the film's halfway point, it's clear this is a film about a life coming to an end and the way Beeghly's grown children have managed to forgive his transgressions. Those sins may seem eccentric to us, but they most assuredly wounded his family deeply.