Monday, September 13, 2010

On bringing the KING CORN guys to the Valley by Erica Bleeg

Martha note:  Erica Bleeg is always up to something interesting at JMU. When I heard about her latest project -- bringing the documentary King Corn to campus this coming Wednesday (and the two guys responsible for it on Thursday) -- I asked her to blog about what she's gotten up to this time.


For me, inspiration begins with curiosity and asking questions.

My first introduction to filmmakers Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney came over a year ago in late spring when I was listening to WMRA. They were on Bob Edwards Weekend discussing their latest film, The Greening of Southie, about the construction of the first green building in South Boston, a working-class Irish neighborhood locals know as “Southie.”

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney

Like many NPR listeners, I’m curious about people and other creatures, and how they come to do what they do and know what they know. I’m drawn just as much to voices – like Bob Edwards’s voice, which sounds like a classical pianist and an angler got together and made a smart, understated man, slightly worn but alert, with the traces of someone who used to smoke. On the day I heard Curt and Ian, they, too, had the sincere voices of people who present what they do plainly, without cajoling, as if they knew those who cared would listen. It made me want to learn more. Then what sealed it for me came at the end of the interview, when Bob Edwards mentioned the name of their production company, Wicked Delicate, and Curt said it’s “the kind compliment a Midcoast Mainer might give to a really good blueberry pie.”

It didn’t take long for me to look them up. The Wicked Delicate site itself offers a visual feast of their work. I plucked up a YouTube video of one of their more recent projects, “Truck Farm,” and posted it on my facebook page for friends. Jen Bedet, a redheaded biking vegan, and friend from my years in Iowa City, wrote to me and said, “Didn’t you know Curt and Ian when they were here?” Apparently, they’d lived in Iowa City while filming King Corn, their award-winning breakout film, and they’d befriended enough folks in Iowa City to get invited to at least one wedding. “You must have moved to Maine by then,” said Jen. Indeed, I had. That was 2004, when I graduated from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program in the spring, and Curt and Ian were just two years out of Yale and in their mid-twenties, moving to Iowa to grow corn and make a film about it with the help of several farmers and Curt’s cousin, director Aaron Woolf.

King Corn asks questions, the first being where does our food come from and what goes into making it? From there, how did corn come to dominate the American diet mostly in the form of corn products like high fructose corn syrup? And how do extensive government subsidies for corn affect our health and the health of the land?

These questions never occurred to me when I was their age, drinking multiple sodas a day. But over a decade later, by the time I heard Curt and Ian on Bob Edwards, the sodas were long behind me. I was putting together a food-writing course for Spring 2010 at James Madison University, where I’ve taught since 2007. For that course, something Virginia Woolf wrote had been circling my thoughts: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” she said. What does it mean to dine well? I wondered. I knew King Corn would be a part of the course, and so I thought, why not? Why not contact the King Corn guys and see if they could come to the valley? I knew I could count on broad support: the film and environmental studies people, and that JMU entity with the most unwieldy name, the Institute for the Stewardship for the Natural World—they would help. I just had to ask.

But first I had to contact Curt and Ian and see if they had time to do this sort of thing. I imagine our Iowa City connection and knowing people in common gave me the gumption to do so. Thing is, whether we knew people in common or not, they would have come, and I’ve thought since that I ought to reach out more. Having scoured the Wicked Delicate website, I knew a few things about them before I sent out that first correspondence. For example, they ran a film workshop in Waldoboro, Maine, and according to the site one of the major draws of said workshop was the chance to see “one of Ian’s childhood soccer trophies”! Well, that was just doggone irresistible.

I’ve known Waldoboro since I was three years old. Just south of there, in Pemaquid, was the first place I saw the ocean. My Grammy used to take my brother and me there in the summers, just as she’d taken my mom and Aunt Beth, and just as she’d been taken by her parents. Next to Ian’s trophies (I’m sure), Waldoboro may be most famous for Moody’s Diner, and Moody’s is famous for its pies. So, when I sent that first email, I asked, “What would be considered a wicked delicate pie at Moody’s?”

Ian’s favorite, I learned, is their peanut butter pie. Not so for Curt. He said Moody’s peanut butter pie is too custardy for his tastes. He likes fruity things, like marionberry pie, a specialty in his home state of Oregon. I’m thinking about dessert even as I write this. Peanut butter and berries—surely two of the world’s greatest creations.

So, yes, now, Ian and Curt are coming to visit and they'll be here this week.

Please join the three of us at James Madison University for a screening of two of Curt and Ian’s greatest creations, King Corn and its companion sequel Big River, this Wednesday, September 15 at 7:00 in Miller Hall, room 1101. At 8:00 the following evening, Curt and Ian will be here to give a media-rich presentation, “Back to Back to the Land” on sustainability in Harrison Hall, room 2105. I’m looking forward to thanking them for their inspiring work.

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