A Fortnightly Review.
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
2h 2min | Drama, Western | UK release 28 May 2021
By SIMON COLLINGS.
KELLY REICHARDT’S LATEST film, First Cow, opens with a quotation from William Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’: ‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.’ It represents a belief the poet invites us to question. Reichardt’s movie is an exploration of the challenges to friendship in a hostile world, and the limits of the sanctuary it offers. The film is set in the 1820s in Oregon, USA and tells the story of two outsiders: Maurice ‘Cookie’ Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) who join forces in an attempt to escape from a life of poverty and rootlessness.
We first meet Cookie travelling with a group of fur trappers on their way back to a trading settlement. Cookie is supposed to provide meals but is hopeless as a hunter. Foraging for mushrooms one evening he discovers King-Lu, hiding naked in the woods, on the run from a group of Russian trappers. Cookie helps King-Lu evade capture. Later, at the trading post, the two men meet again. They set up home together in King-Lu’s hut and hit on the idea of making and selling cakes at the local market, Cookie having once trained as a baker. Their oily-cakes, a kind of doughnut, are a huge success. The only problem is that they need milk for the recipe and there is only one cow in the settlement, belonging to the Chief Factor (Toby Jones). The two friends steal milk from the cow each night, hoping to accumulate sufficient capital from the sale of their delicacies to be able to head south and set themselves up in business.
Reichardt’s long-term writing partner Jon Raymond authored the script, drawing on elements of his first novel The Half-Life, a book Reichardt has long wanted to make into a movie.1 To create a viable scenario Raymond made significant changes to the novel’s complex plot. There is no cow in The Half-Life, for example, and the events in the film take place in a much more condensed time period. The Half-Life also includes a parallel narrative set in the present day, about the relationship between two women. We get only a brief reference to this at the start of First Cow, when a woman out walking her dog discovers two human skeletons in a shallow grave.
All Reichardt’s films deal in one way or another with marginalised individuals struggling to survive within an economic system which has no place for them, where the American Dream has become hollow, unrealisable, a mirage. First Cow takes us back to the early colonisation of the western region of the United States, exploring the gap between ideas of bounty and unlimited opportunity, and the reality of life for those left behind in the rush to exploit the country’s natural resources.
‘The last voyage of that renowned but unfortunate discoverer, Captain Cook,’ Washington Irving wrote in Astoria (published in 1836), ‘had made known the vast quantities of the sea-otter to be found along that coast, and the immense prices to be obtained for its fur in China. It was as if a new gold coast had been discovered.’2 In 1810, the American Pacific Fur Company established the first trading post at Astoria, close to the Columbia River. In 1811, the explorer David Thompson, a partner in the British North West Company, arrived at Astoria having traced an overland route from Canada. With the outbreak of the 1812 war between Britain and the US, the Americans sold out to the North West Company, fearing their assets would otherwise be sequestrated. In the decades that followed, the Pacific northwest remained effectively under the control of the British, though American traders were supposed to have equal rights of access.
This is the context in which we find the film’s principal characters, Cookie and King-Lu, trying to survive: a frontier trading network only recently established where violence is rife and international political influences shape local governance. The only access to the area from the east was by horse or on foot. No route through the Rockies suitable for wagons had been discovered at that point. The major trek west did not happen until the 1840s. People of many races, primarily men, came seeking their fortunes. King-Lu is Chinese, Cookie Jewish American, the Chief Factor English, other characters speak with Scots and Irish accents. The trappers and traders formed alliances with the indigenous First People. Many of them married local women. In First Cow the Chief Factor has married into the family of a local Chinook chief, bolstering his political influence through personal ties.
The promise of riches, however, eludes many of the fortune hunters. Daily life is hard. Frustrated at the lack of dinner, one of the group of trappers employing Cookie tells the hapless cook to ‘improvise’. ‘This is a land of abundance’, the trapper says, without irony. Who benefits from that richness is obscured by this bald assertion. A hierarchy of wealth and power ensures that it’s the shareholders of the large trading companies who grow rich. Commercial opportunities undoubtedly do exist, but as King-Lu muses to his friend, you need capital to get started. It is this lack of funds which leads to the nightly theft of milk.
FIRST COW IS the second of Reichardt’s films to have a period setting. Her 2010 feature, Meek’s Cutoff, also has an historical focus, and was again scripted by Raymond. Meek’s Cutoff takes place in the desert of eastern Oregon in 1845 and is based on an actual event. Three families making the trek west on the Oregon Trail have been led into danger by their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who claimed to know a short-cut. Lost in an arid and unforgiving landscape the party eventually encounters a local Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux) who they capture and try to induce to lead them to water. Tensions build within the group as Meek insists the ‘Indian’ is a threat to their safety and should be killed, while others, particularly the women, believe trusting the Cayuse offers the best chance of survival. The conflict comes to a head when Meek pulls a gun on the Cayuse man and one of the women, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), challenges him with a rifle.3
Reichardt consciously references the Western genre in Meek’s Cutoff, borrowing some elements from classic films while modifying others. A comparison of Reichardt’s work with Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail of 1930 highlights the difference in her approach.4 Walsh’s film portrays the hardship and danger of the trek west on the Oregon Trail, and the eventual triumph of the settlers. The film stars John Wayne, then only twenty-two, as Breck Coleman, a trapper who agrees to scout for a large convoy of wagons heading west. The man hired to lead the wagon train, Red Flack (Tyrone Power), is a villain and the murderer of Coleman’s friend. As the party moves along the trail Flack and his associates are unmasked and Coleman eventually assumes the leadership of the settlers, bringing them safely to their destination.
Reichardt’s film has many episodes similar to those in The Big Trail: preparations to depart, a precarious river crossing, wagons being lowered down a cliff on ropes. There are scenes of domestic work, e.g. washing clothes, but also women loading and firing rifles. There are also many shots of the settlers tramping arduously through desert, rain storms, and snow. Meek’s Cutoff foregrounds some of these details: the tedium and physical arduousness of the trek, the labour, the women’s familiarity with firearms.
Reichardt’s film also shows a number of plot elements similar to The Big Trail, but there are important differences, particularly in the approach to the roles played by women and native peoples. The way Coleman supplants Flack in Walsh’s movie finds a parallel in the way Meek’s authority is increasingly eroded as Emily assumes de facto leadership. The big difference here is, of course, that in Reichardt’s film it’s a woman taking control. The encounter with ‘Indians’ in The Big Trail involves a series of parleys, then a major shootout. In Meek’s Cutoff, the Cayuse man, who speaks only his own language, and who the Europeans don’t understand, is an enigmatic figure. He is never aggressive, but the settlers are in constant fear of violence.
The Big Trail is accompanied by a dramatic orchestral score, but the soundtrack of Meek’s Cutoff, as film scholar E. Dawn Hall notes in her work on Reichardt, places diegetic sound to the fore: the creak of wagon wheels, wind in the brush, the grinding of coffee, a crackling fire, the clatter of utensils and tin plates. Music is used sparingly, primarily to emphasise the anxieties within the group.5 This preference for diegetic sound is characteristic of Reichardt’s work, adding a physical, earthy quality to her films.
The camerawork in Meek’s Cutoff is also very different from that of Walsh’s movie. Reichardt’s film was shot in a 4:3 visual aspect, much narrower than the panoramic, widescreen view we’re used to seeing in classic Westerns, with their open skies and sweeping landscapes. Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour, in their study of Reichardt, comment on the frequent use of shots low to the ground in Meek’s Cutoff, which further limit the view.6 The restricted framing creates a sense of claustrophobia, emphasising the predicament of the migrants who face not a land of endless vistas, but a barren, threatening environment in which they are hopelessly lost.
In place of the unashamed celebration of The Big Trail as a triumph of the American spirit, Reichardt’s film questions the inevitability of European settlement and domination. One inter-title in Walsh’s film declares that ‘history cuts the way’. At the end of Meek’s Cutoff the settlers, wholly reliant now on the Cayuse, confront an uncertain and far from inevitable future.
FIRST COW IS dedicated to radical filmmaker Peter Hutton, and opens with a long static shot of a river barge passing left to right across the frame, which Reichardt describes as an ‘ode’ to Hutton. This image echoes Hutton’s work: edited sequences of images which the filmmaker likened to sketchbooks of observations. These silent films, mainly shot in black and white, he called his ‘reels’. When asked if he was ‘avant-garde’, the filmmaker answered no, that in fact he saw himself as ‘rear guard’, someone who aligned himself with the aesthetic interests of early cinema. Hutton, who died in 2016, brought Reichardt to Bard College, where she still teaches, and was an important influence on her work. Reichardt has described Bard, and the faculty there, as enormously supportive for her creative practices
Hutton worked as a merchant seaman when younger and had a lifelong fascination with boats and ships. At a memorial for Hutton, hosted by Film Forum in Los Angeles in 2016, fellow filmmaker James Benning recalled many hours spent with Hutton on a boat on the Hudson watching the light slowly change. Reichardt’s river barge evokes not just Hutton’s work but Benning’s too – films like 13 Lakes and Sogobi which both include fixed-frame, long takes of passing container ships. The shack which Cookie and King-Lu occupy in First Cow also has echoes of Benning’s series of films about the cabins of David Thoreau and Ted Kaczinsky, though Reichardt’s characters, unlike the subjects of Benning’s films, occupy the hut because it’s all they can afford, not out of any primitivist idealism.7
Reichardt’s films, and in particular Meek’s Cutoff, are associated by scholars with ‘slow cinema’.8 Her work shares some of the characteristics of Hutton’s and Benning’s films: a preference for long or middle-distance shots, fixed frames, and a focus on phenomenological realism. But while her takes are longer than is typical of contemporary Hollywood films, they are nothing like as long as those of Hutton or Benning. Film scholar Elena Gorfinkel describes Reichardt’s work as unique in American independent filmmaking, in that it sits ‘at the cusp of experimental and classical film traditions’. It is distinctive from other ‘slow cinema’, she argues, in the way it combines ‘dilated temporalities’ with an adherence to ‘certain elements of classical film form, and shot structure.’9
While Reichardt consistently relies on long takes and a durational, observational style, her intervention in a global slow cinema aesthetic comes less in the use of literal extended duration but, more prominently, in the linkage of quotidian activity and forms of arduous, painful labour with temporalities of exhaustion and dispossession for subjects on the margins of American life. Slowness for Reichardt operates as a vitally allegorical, as much as a formal, material.
GORFINKEL’S OBSERVATIONS ABOUT Meek’s Cutoff apply equally to First Cow. The fixed shot of the river barge at the start of the film establishes the pace. The sequence with the woman walking her dog and the slow unearthing of the two skeletons is comprised of fixed, mostly long takes. Conventionally, we would expect a close-up of the skulls as she uncovers them, but Reichardt instead cuts to the dog in the middle distance sniffing in the undergrowth. The camera doesn’t move until we encounter Cookie foraging for food. This pace is maintained through the film, with many long takes emphasising both the physical work of daily survival and the forced indigence of those without prospects. ‘By reminding viewers,’ Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour argue, ‘that time’s passage need not entail progress, narrative or otherwise, Reichardt shows that, for some, western settlement was not a story of victory but one of long emergency.’
Fusco and Seymour go on to link Reichardt’s work with the idea of ‘slow violence’ articulated by the post-colonial critic Rob Nixon, a concept with which they suggest Reichardt and other slow cinema filmmakers ‘might be said to engage’.10Nixon writes about the massive impacts of the oil industry on communities in the Niger delta, the people displaced by large dam projects like Namada in India, and the skewing of local economies by the international tourism industry. These are all manifestations of a global free market logic, of which America has long been a champion. It is a kind of economic and social violence which, Nixon says, ‘occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’
Nixon directs some of his argument at what he sees as the parochialism of much US environmentalism and eco-criticism, with its focus on conserving virgin wilderness, a poetics of place, and an emphasis on the transcendental sublime. These dominant narratives have their roots, he argues, in early settler concepts of America as a new Eden, and the idea of the ‘American Adam’ as a kind of ‘natural’ man, released from the encumbrances of tradition and thus uniquely equipped to make a New World. Nixon quotes the environmental writer Rick Bass declaring:
The unprotected wilderness of the West is one of our greatest strengths as a country. Another is our imagination, our tendency to think rather than accept – to challenge, to ask why and what if, to create rather than destroy. This questioning is a kind of wildness, a kind of strength which many have said is peculiarly American.
Such approaches, Nixon argues, conceal the mechanisms which are generating the environmental crisis, and obscure the histories of the marginalised and the displaced. The idea that Americans ‘create rather than destroy’ is a claim the Ogoni of Nigeria, and many other impoverished communities like them around the world, would greet with incredulity.
Reichardt’s politics in First Cow align strongly with Nixon’s perspective, as indeed do her films generally. The wilderness encountered in First Cow is anything but benign, and the human actors are far from exhibiting Adamic innocence. Setting the film in a period when sovereignty over the western territory of the US was in flux, and where the trader networks were trans-cultural, complicates questions of origin and identity.11 The consequence of the trappers’ operations will be a catastrophic decline in the beaver population, even if the Chief Factor believes the supply ‘will last for ever’.
IF ANYONE IN the film does exhibit something resembling Adamic innocence it is Cookie. Early in the film, while foraging for fungi, he finds a lizard stranded on its back, and gently turns it over. When King-Lu invites him to make himself ‘easy’ in the shack, Cookie’s response is to pick up a broom and start sweeping. While he milks the cow each night he talks to her gently, commiserating with her over her lack of a companion. He seems at his happiest when in the kitchen baking, but he nevertheless subscribes to the prevailing cultural belief in ‘progress’. King-Lu is the more ambitious of the pair, but Cookie too is seduced by the idea of one day owning a hotel and bakery in California.
What begins as the theft of a small amount of milk for personal use turns into an enterprise which soon assumes its own logic. The two friends take more and more risks, fearing that if they stop they will miss their chance to make the money they need to escape this life. When they are discovered stealing they flee into the woods and King-Lu swims to safety across the river in a scene which echoes his evasion of the trappers at the start of the film. The friends eventually find each other again at their half-demolished hut and decamp together.
How their story is connected with the two skeletons in the wood is left open in the final section of the film, a typically ambiguous Reichardt ending. Where many of the characters in her films are alone, abandoned by family, suspicious of strangers and struggling to establish meaningful relationships with others, Cookie and King-Lu do form a close and affectionate relationship. Their partnership seems to offer a means of escaping their precarious circumstances, but ultimately, Reichardt suggests, it proves deficient given the prevailing power structures. Friendship provides only a temporary refuge, in the end no more secure than a bird’s nest, or a spider’s web.
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal,Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here. Why Are You Here?, a collection of ‘very brief fictions’, was published in 2020 by Odd Volumes, our imprint. His most recent work is the chapbook Sanchez Ventura, published by Leafe Press in early 2021.
- The Half Life was the first book of Raymond’s Reichardt read and it prompted her to contact the author to ask if he had any short stories she might use. This led to them working together on Old Joy (2006), Reichardt’s second feature, another tale about male friendship.
- The text of Washington Irving’s Astoria; or, anecdotes of an enterprise beyond the Rocky Mountains (1836) is available here. The quotation is from the start of chapter 3.
- The wagon train guided into the desert by the trapper Stephen Meek consisted of around 200 wagons and 1000 people. In Reichardt’s film the pared-back numbers, three families with their wagons and only one ‘Indian’, are partly a function of the director choosing to work with small budgets in order to maintain artistic control of her work. But they also reflect the director’s interest in the emblematic potential of the story, which the spareness of the mise-en-scène serves to emphasise.
- The Big Trail can be viewed on YouTube.
- E. Dawn Hall, ReFocus: The Films of Kelly Reichardt, Edinburgh University Press, 2018. Music is also used sparingly in First Cow, William Tyler’s score serving as a structuring device, signalling important developments in the narrative.
- Katherine Fusco and Nicole Seymour, Kelly Reichardt: Emergency and the Everyday, University of Illinois Press, 2017.
- Hutton provides a useful summary of his work in a Q&A session recorded after a screening of his film At Sea in 2010 at Hampshire College.
- Meek’s Cutoff became something of flashpoint for critical comment about ‘slow cinema’ at the time of its release. Dan Kois’ widely read New York Times article, ‘Eating Your Cultural Vegetables’, described the film as an ‘arduous chronicle of a long journey…seemingly portrayed in real time’. By the end of the movie Kois said he ‘could sympathise with the settler’s exhaustion’ having just been through ‘a similar gruelling experience’. Dan Kois, New York Times Magazine, 29 April 2011.
- See Gorfinkel’s contribution to Slow Cinema, edited by Tiago de Luca and Nuno Barrasdas Jorge, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.
- See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.
- E. Dawn Hall, commenting on the ‘broader historical and contemporary geopolitics’ referenced in Meek’s Cutoff draws attention to a moment in the film when the immigrants worry that Meek may be an agent of the British deliberately trying to prevent them reaching their destination. Sovereignty in the north-west US was still in dispute in 1845. ‘Western expansion,’ she writes, ‘invites discussion about manifest destiny, a contested ideology even at its height in the mid nineteenth century.’