How do you illustrate the vision at the center of Milford Beeghly's career a man for whom hybrid corn represented the cause of a lifetime? Dancing ears of corn, snippets of old commercials, and visual meditations on the rich Midwest farmland that nurtured Beeghly's faith in the miracles of hybridization are among the creative ways chosen by the maker of the new film, Hybrid, to bring the laconic Beeghly's worldview to life.
The result is a quirky, poetic opus that says as much about the pragmatic spiritual values and emotional inhibitions of the American hinterland as it does about that archetypal Midwesterner, Milford Beeghly.
Monteith McCollum's Hybrid debuts Tuesday, July 9, 10 p.m. ET (check for rebroadcasts) on PBS. Hybrid is the third program in the 15th anniversary season of POV, television's longest-running series of independent, non-fiction films. POV continues on Tuesdays through August 27, with additional Fall and Winter specials.
Beginning in the 1930s, Beeghly and his company, Beeghly's Best Hybrids, brought the gospel of hybrid corn right into the homes of Midwestern farmers where it encountered suspicion and fear. But hybrid corn seeds were far more than a business proposition for Beeghly. His own experiments had convinced him that hybrids, most especially of corn, which has peculiarly "promiscuous" characteristics, promised a millennial era of peace and prosperity.
With a single-mindedness that seemed to preclude such normal obligations as communicating with his family, Beeghly took the cause of hybrid corn on the road to show farmers that it was neither a hoax nor a sin. In the 1950s, he produced his own commercials for local TV stations incidentally creating time capsules rich in the language and attitudes of mid-century American farmers. And he continued to develop his own hybrids.
Hybrid begins by catching up with Beeghly and his family on the patriarch's 94th birthday he's still going strong enough to be getting remarried. Interviews with family members paint the portrait of a remote, eccentric man obsessed with cross-breeding corn and more comfortable in the quiet of a cornfield than in his own home. But interviews with Beeghly in those same cornfields take surprisingly intimate turns director McCollum is, in fact, Beeghly's grandson.
A more complex picture emerges, in which a lyrical love of life underlies the solace and inspiration that Beeghly always found in his cornfields and in the great reaches of farmland surrounding them. Hybrid is a deft portrait of a self-made man and peculiarly American philosopher of the soil.
"This is a visually unusual film because I was searching for ways to express my grandfather's feeling for the land and his passion for the corn plant," says producer/director McCollum. "The corn and land ultimately became characters in a story that is as much about the secret lives of families as it is about the mysteries of corn hybridization."
Hybrid has won a number of international film festival awards, including the Grand Jury Award for best feature at the Slamdance International Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award. Hybrid was also included in the prestigious New Directors/New Films series at New York's Museum of Modern Art.