Towner Cinema – Haley Moyse Fenning on First Cow
Posted on 22/01/2021
This month we invited Haley Moyse Fenning to contribute as our guest curator. Haley is currently undertaking a collaborative doctoral project with Towner and University of Sussex; over the next three years, she will examine and redress gender imbalance across the full breadth of museum activity at Towner. For the blog, appropriately enough, she chose to write about one of our favourite female filmmakers, Kelly Reichardt, whose new film First Cow, is scheduled for release later this year
It’s safe to say that annual traditions fell by the wayside for many of us at the close of 2020, but one which held firm for me was a decades-long ritual of bedding down with some of the best films of the year and crafting a carefully hand-written, definitive Top 5 that no-one asked for. This was a habit inherited from my cherished brother, Chris, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of film I relied on long before IMDB and Letterboxd. The 2020 inventory was not as brief as you’d imagine considering how abruptly productions had ground to a halt back in March. After too much deliberation over whether Steve McQueen’s phenomenal Small Axe was one film or five, I took respite in revisiting First Cow, a Kelly Reichardt feature from further down my list which had premiered quietly at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival.
First Cow is a much-needed restorative tonic as the consequences of shielding from a global pandemic continue to take their toll. Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) meet in the vast wilderness of 1820s Oregon. Cookie’s softness, which we see taken advantage of by the brawl-seeking fur trappers he is tasked with serving, is extended to King Lu, naked and on the run from a similarly unforgiving group of Russian settlers. United by their isolation and enticed by two subtly different versions of the American Dream, Chinese immigrant and budding-entrepreneur, King Lu, and talented baker and homebody, Cookie, hatch a plan to make enough money selling cakes to settle peacefully in neighbouring California.
For this endeavour, they need our third protagonist (unnamed in the film, played flawlessly by “Evie”), the first and only cow in the Oregon Territory, whose arrival on a barge along a misty Umpqua River, makes for one of the most stunning, lingering, and bizarre shots of the year. Cookie and King Lu need to steal the milk from this prized Jersey to produce “oily cakes” to sell to local travellers and tradesmen in nearby Fort Tillicum. Under the cover of nightfall, they must conceal their theft, as well as Cookie’s increasing bond with the cow, from her wealthy owner, the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), while continuing to meet growing demand from customers.
But it is friendship, rather than fortune, that ultimately reveals itself as the richest theme of this beautifully executed story. A mutual admiration for Evie is, you suspect, as much a motivation for Cookie to make the nightly visits as the resulting bounty. Likewise, Cookie’s companionship, shown through exquisite scenes of domesticity, becomes as fundamental a need for King Lu as money or freedom; to the point where to give it up even when the stakes are highest, would be to perish anyway.
Kelly Reichardt enriches the simplicity of this American tale – based on The Half Life, a novel by Jonathan Raymond, Reichardt’s co-screenwriter – with all the hallmarks of her incredible portfolio of social portraiture. A patient, tender lens on the breathtaking landscapes of the Pacific Northwest – Reichardt’s home and the setting for five of her seven feature films – she centres characters living on the margins, in search of better things. Dialogue is used sparingly, complex emotions are expressed through subtle gestures, and desperate characters play out unconventional routes from A to B.
Watching through Reichardt’s back catalogue feels especially timely and, no mean feat in minimalist filmmaking, there’s really something for everyone. You may find yourself immersed in Certain Women (2016), a triptych of tales masterfully delivered by Kristin Stewart, Laura Dern and Reichardt’s long-time collaborators Michelle Williams and Lily Gladstone; willing Cozy (Lisa Bowman) out of monotony in River of Grass (1994); despairing as lonely Wendy (Williams) and her dog and only companion Lucy become separated (Wendy and Lucy, 2008), or escaping to the velvety forests of Old Joy (2006) where expectant father Mark (Daniel London) seeks to reignite a friendship with Kurt (Will Oldman) as their lives and responsibilities diverge.
Reichardt’s retellings of the West privilege women (Meek’s Cutoff, 2010) and, in her own words, “less than super-masculine men”. Crucially too, in First Cow, she utilises Chinuk Wawa – an endangered dialect developed to ease trade where there was no common language in the Pacific Northwest – layering both settler and Indigenous quotidian narratives in an attempt to interrogate sensationalised fictions of the Old West.
Despite having evolved a radical directorial style which masterfully guides us through these understated stories, Reichardt’s aesthetic undeniably secures her place in the established canon of classic Westerns. She credits the paintings of Frederic Remington for her expansive, Frontier-era landscapes, which gives the quiet of her films the feeling of a violent confrontation waiting to happen. Instead, the building tension reflects a deepening investment in our unconventional heroes, their relationships, and their survival.
Like us, First Cow is currently stuck in lockdown limbo. It is slated for UK general release, and a subsequent screening at Towner Cinema, later in 2021. Until then, a recent update from Oregon, which might help us to feel some of the love that makes Reichardt’s warm realism so vital; the film’s breakout star, Evie, has become a mother. To a calf named Cookie. Could this spell Reichardt’s first sequel? Or would that be milking it?
Haley Moyse Fenning is undertaking a collaborative doctoral project with University of Sussex and Towner Eastbourne. Over the next three years, she will examine and redress gender imbalance across a full breadth of museum activity at Towner; celebrating and connecting audiences with vital contributions of women in contemporary visual arts.
We are proud recipients of the BFI FAN Covid-19 Resilience fund with thanks to the BFI Film Audience Network awarding funds from National Lottery.