While PBS-hallowed filmmaker Ken Burns ladles treacle over the American past like hot fudge on the world's biggest sundae, younger and less sepia-tinted filmmakers are beginning to take a more searching view of the national taste for sweet syrupiness. The goo at the heart of King Corn, for instance, is high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap and ubiquitous sweetener that's not only a principal ingredient of many of our most obesity- and diabetes-inducing processed "foods," such as soda, but is also a substance, like enriched uranium, that could never exist in nature. It's manufactured, from inedible kernels industrially farmed and then treated with a host of unpleasant chemicals, so when one of the young principals in King Corn brews up a batch at home and lifts the flask to his lips for a swig, you can't help but flinch.
At the heart of King Corn (which opens Nov. 2 in the Bay Area) are two young Yalies, Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, who grow curious about corn when an isotope analysis reveals that almost all the carbon in their bodies is derived from that foodstuff. They arrange to farm an acre of corn in Iowa, then follow the harvest as best they can as it flows into the whitewater river of agrocommerce to cattle feedlots and fast-food hamburger stands, to corn-syrup factories with reeking smokestacks and convenience stores in Brooklyn that sell soda in huge plastic bottles.
The film's tone is gently comic, at least in the beginning the boys drive tractors and body-surf down a golden mountain of corn kernels but the mood darkens as the camera captures the sufferings of cattle whose digestive tracts are destroyed by corn (a grain they're not suited to eat) and the wistfulness of people whose guzzling of corn syrupsweetened soda led to diabetes.
Corn is many things and perhaps, now, nearly everything in American food production, but above all it is cheap. Cheap is a holy word in the American lexicon; it cannot be gainsaid. Cheap is good, and cheap food is good food, as agriculture secretary Earl Butz suggested during the Nixon years. A geriatric Butz is interviewed near the end of the movie; I only wish he'd been asked nicely, of course whether we can exalt inexpensive corn without coming to see life itself as fundamentally cheap.