First Cow

It was somewhere in the fall festivals of last year when I first saw an image of a soft-eyed man with a soft brown cow, and knew without having to know anything else about it that this movie was going to heal my soul.

I could not have known then how true and necessary that would be by the time I would finally watch it! Four months after its March theatrical release was curtailed almost as soon as it began by the pandemic that still grips the country, A24 decided that something they could do for a strained and weary populace was to give us all a little First Cow, as a treat. Following director Kelly Reichardt’s suggestions, I bought it in SD, for softness, scooped myself a little bowl of Talenti’s oak-aged vanilla (a mellow toasted dream), and let myself be carried away, to…well exactly where I am now actually, but 200 years earlier.  

First Cow takes place in western Oregon Territory in the 1820s, and tells the story of two frontier outsiders who invented male domesticity and also dairy fraud. One of them is Otis ‘Cookie’ Figowitz, a talented baker and the gentlest man in the world. The other is King-Lu, a bright, lifelong traveler who loves two things: business enterprise, and Cookie Figowitz. There is also a cow, the First Cow (in the territory), who is introduced being ferried serenely up the river so that the foolish but wealthy English trader who has built a house near the fort can have milk in his tea. Cookie spies a precious baking ingredient, King-Lu spies an even more precious Opportunity—a chance to make their American fortune here in the American west. (That the only way it is possible for the poor to get started on the road to capitalist success is through stealing from those hoarding the resources, is of course the point.) With their secretly-gotten milk, the two of them begin selling Cookie’s perfectly tender ‘oily cakes’, befitting this PERFECT, TENDER MOVIE. O the Tenderness! The companionship, the care, the cow! Just the sweet, feeling way John Magaro speaks to her? When I tell you that I clutched my hand over my heart—! 

Kelly Reichardt movies are always unhurried yet precise, and what that means in her latest and loveliest landscape film is that each low-tempo joke or act of friendship or moment of discovery just unfolds on you, with this easy, comfortable pace like the hooting of an owl in a tree. It sweeps you up and takes care of you. Kelly Reichardt understands that what I want to watch in a movie is a steady, quiet view of a man washing his chest though the open slats of his rustic tiny-home while his soft-spoken partner bakes them donuts with a whisk he fashioned out of twigs. Kelly Reichardt understands that what the topaz-edged early autumn days in the Pacific Northwest need are mist and cool mud and also peaceful guitar melodies. Kelly Reichardt understands the inherent drama of a clafoutis.

She also understands the appeal of: Alia Shawkat, René Auberjonois as a disgruntled old man with a pet raven (!), my favorite British character actor Toby Jones, Cardinal Dussolier from The Young Pope, LILY GLADSTONE, and otherwise attentively ensuring that this naturalist world she is filming is full of Chinook and Multnomah people just living their various lives along the encroaching shoreline of capitalist American history.

In a graceful historian’s choice for a period piece, Alia Shawkat’s nearly wordless opening scene with her dog in the present day introduces our story’s eventual endpoint at the beginning, providing a poignant frame for all that is to come. But even before that, First Cow‘s emotional contextualizing begins foremost with an epigraph from William Blake: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” And I would like to add another, from Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread.”

★★★★★

The Vast of Night

I watched The Vast of Night in the strange, crackling dark of the 4th of July. I thought it would be a good Americana watch for that night—a small town, 1950s, New Mexico, something in the sky. Just from that, you know what this movie is going to be. But what is so entrancing about The Vast of Night is how unusual its retro feels. It’s a movie with an assured artistic point of view, something that comes out of the look and the score and the pacing that I don’t really know else how to describe besides just with: vibes.

The Vast of Night is small and quiet, warm while still genuinely a little eerie and dark. It’s also dark in the sense that it all happens on one night, which is part of what feels different about this old-style sci-fi. The movie takes place in real-time over 85 minutes, the conceit that it’s bound by the length of the highly-attended first home basketball game of the season, which has left just a small number of people still out and about. Namely our two leads, who are both working tonight: Fay, a teenage switchboard operator, and her somewhat older friend Everett, the town’s young nighttime radio host. 

That at times it feels like Fay and Everett might be the only two people in this hushed desert town is just one of the ways first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson spun atmosphere out the constraints of his micro $700,000 budget. A lot of which he clearly earmarked for good photography, in order to build much of the movie out of these hypnotic ground-level tracking shots (ground-level! again, unusual). If you’ve heard anything about this recent Amazon sleeper release, it’s probably about the one-take where the camera zips off on its own to wind across the empty town, linking the locations of our two main characters in geography and time. But I think my own favorite tracking shot is actually the long sequence that the pleasantly bewildering, quick-tumbling dialogue of the opening scene eventually settles into, where after they split off from the crowd gathering at the gymnasium, we smoothly follow along behind Fay and Everett at about knee height as they walk through the dark to her job at the switchboard, Everett casually teaching her how to conduct an on-the-fly interview on her new tape recorder he carries between them. 

These sorts of visuals are integral to the spell of this movie, but the fact that it frequently *feels* like it could have had life as an audio-only radio drama just speaks to how deeply The Vast of Night understands the matter of its story. The characters really speak like they’re in the ‘50s—or at least I presume, as most of this slang has gone completely out of circulation by 2020—and the naturalistic delivery of this midcentury dialogue is fun & curious to listen to. But the steady, floating movement of the camera in those chattering dialogue scenes also stills into these long moments where we will stay for minutes on end simply watching someone’s face in three-quarter view as they, too, quietly listen to something on the other end of the line. The first of these is over nine minutes long, just Fay alone at her switchboard trying to find an answer for a sound she can’t place, and was also the first time I told this movie aloud: “I like this so much.”

I like that this movie knows I find it wonderful to watch people do technical things with analogue equipment. I like that both leads are wearing these huge glasses that obscure half their face. I like that it’s a period piece that keeps its contemporary outlook in the framing, not the characters’ realities—let the movie be the one to think about quite literally giving a platform to historically marginalized voices, while its historical characters remain most concerned about McCarthyism.

And I really, really like this central relationship. It’s clear from the beginning that while Everett is still very young, he’s older than Fay in a way that has social significance. He has an adult know-how, he’s a young professional, and she’s a high schooler who’s not allowed to let anyone else carry her instrument as it’s on loan from the music teacher. Yet it’s also clear that despite their somewhat different ages, they’re friends, in that way that happens in small communities where social spheres Venn diagram a bit more. And all this means that what sounds on paper like it would be so traditional—a guy and girl who are experiencing a Strange Incident that brings them closer together—is playing on a different sort of register here, one that I found endlessly captivating. Profoundly into these two, just really really taken by them.

Things I was less into were only a few, and I think they’re related, and will be increasingly vague about it for those who haven’t seen this yet: the metafilmic framing device used at the beginning and then a few more times throughout is a good-natured apology for being genre that this film absolutely doesn’t need, and I believe that Twilight Zone-esque promise it made led to a certain overreaching in the specificity of a couple things later. 

In closing, there are only two movies I can recall where I just turned it on to watch again in less than 72 hours, and the other one was also a small 85-minute real-time piece set at night, so I guess that’s something about me.

★★★★½