Biweekly Binge: Ruins of an American Dream
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's First Cow – coming to MUBI on July 9
“Everywhere has been touched now. History isn’t here yet; it is coming but we got here first.” So says the wise and well-travelled man from China – King Lu (Orion Lee) – while passing the Pacific Northwest along with “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro). They discover each other when Lu is running from the Russians and Cookie is foraging for a bunch of edacious fur trappers, chastising him for not finding enough food. In Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, this part of history is not informed by its popular representations in culture, a flavour that is consistent with almost all Reichardt’s works. First Cow focuses on the margins. Here it is represented by Cookie and Lu, two conspicuous men in the wild West and there is more happening to them and around them than the film encapsulates. One is a talented baker, as the name suggests, and another has an eye for the business. But no one would take two innoxious souls seriously.
Lu believes there is no way for a poor man to build a life and here he is sitting on the wet banks of a river in 1820s America, long before the Gold Rush and Civil War. You need capital, a leverage or, in the worst case, a crime is the deduction, and this is a philosophy that rides along with us throughout First Cow, often — with its florid frames and lissome score by William Tyler — making us forget that we are watching a neo-Western. This could very well be a modern film in present-day setting. It is this anecdotal documentation that is evident in every frame of First Cow, large swathes of it populating and telling little stories that will eventually lead to a form of cultural bankruptcy today. As if to underline that, Reichardt begins the film in the current day with marvellous juxtaposition of an evening walk archaeological discovery set to the strains of all forms of contemporary transport sounds with Lu and Cookie’s discovery of life in the wilderness working itself into the often lyrical visuals of the film.
Danger assumes different connotations in Reichardt’s film. The visible markers of the era are present in the side — a bar fight commences out of focus in the background as Cookie watches the baby left under his care by one of the parties. Even something as innocuous and physical as chopping wood is seen through a window as Lu goes at it in gradual, calculated motions while Cookie deals with his restlessness, trying to find an outlet for his talent. That outlet is provided by the title of the film — the cow, first and only in the region, owned by the Chief Factor, an Englishman, and this is just one small level up in Lu and Cookie’s danger dial. We learn their modus operandi in fits and starts, Cookie milks the cow at night and bakes “oily cakes” that soon become a rage in the town. During another night session, we notice it is Lu on a tree branch taking watch while Cookie sweet talks with the cow. They dream of opening a hotel in San Francisco or maybe just a bed and breakfast and they begin to calculate in terms of how many cakes they must sell to make another long journey.
Reichardt locates and critiques the American dream in a small corner of the frontier. A lowly talented man, pushed and shushed over by the testosterone-addled environment around him needs to find the drive to make something out of himself. He is advised and counselled by another man from out of town, finally finding this land to settle after many journeys around the world. They can be petty but clever. They have talent but lack the resources. First Cow begins with a William Blake quote — the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. The film suggests an alternative to the adage behind the American epitome of capitalism — every man for himself. Here, man finds companionship, united in spoils and squalor. This union is perfected when Reichardt cuts away from the final frame to remind us of the modern-day ruins. Lu and Cookie got there first.