Every year at this time, Seattle movie freaks start drooling in anticipation of the annual citywide trough feed that is SIFF. And every year around this time, malcontents begin to bemoan the size and scale of the festival—the lines they will have to wait in, the agonizing conversations they will have to overhear, the eternal jockeying for a better seat, a hotter ticket, a closer look at the real live screenwriters who have flown in to answer questions about what kind of computers they write on... the whole unbearable celebration. The question that echoes the loudest in the bitchy litany that surrounds SIFF, however, is also the most purely cynical: Why do we need a film festival when 90 percent of the films that play in it are in theaters or video stores within a few weeks of closing night?
Well, to that question, I say, simply, Hybrid. This astonishingly beautiful, inventive, funny, sad documentary about horticultural wizard/emotionally unavailable paterfamilias Milford Beeghly played at the 2001 SIFF and promptly disappeared. Yes, it was on PBS one time, and it probably played at the Grand Illusion or whatever. But it never properly entered the independent-film consciousness, and that's a pity, because it certainly got stuck in mine. Freshly out on DVD (five years later, thank you), Hybrid feels every bit as stimulating and creative as it did when it played to a healthy audience at SIFF, which reflects glory not only on the filmmaker and his subject (whose name, I would like to remind you, is MILFORD BEEGHLY!), but on the film festival that programmed it.
"Everybody loves corn on the cob, but most people are surprised to learn that they're eating a mouthful of ripened ovaries," Beeghly declares in one of the many startling voice-over snippets that enliven the documentary. Beeghly was obsessed with the sexuality of corn. According to his wife, kids, and grandkids—none of whom ever smiles—that's about as close as he ever came to expressing any emotion. Still, he lived to be 102, and revolutionized agriculture by engineering hybrid seed corn. His innovations are still in use today, and given corn's continuing status as a supercrop, may play a role in reducing world hunger. More to the point, though, he is a fascinating centerpiece. Director McCollum (Beeghly's grandson) translates the old man's obsessions to film using stop-motion animation (ever wanted to see corn copulate?), a heavily textured palette of gray tones, and archive footage of Milford's incredible old TV commercials.
To enliven subjects as simultaneously arcane (corn hybridization) and everyday (Midwestern emotional emptiness) requires a deft hand; in many ways, Hybrid is itself a hybrid—of the standard-issue first-person family memoir, and something far darker and more original. The anthropomorphic impulse that drove Beeghly's science finds its echo and its illustration in his grandson's cinematic inventions, making the case that even in a less-than-ideal family environment, the hand of genetics is always visible.