First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on cattle, capitalism and how Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy influenced her film-Entertainment News , Firstpost

‘I seem to go back to Apu all the time or really any of Ray’s films. There’s an economy to it that works nicely with the situation (First Cow’s) characters find themselves in and the economy of their own lives,’ says director Kelly Reichardt.

The classic Economics 101 satire jokes capitalism is when you have two cows, you sell one and buy a bull. But what if there’s just one cow in the whole territory, and the country’s still transitioning from colonialism to capitalism? Kelly Reichardt tries to find out in her latest film, First Cow.

With Cannes about to get underway, the attention will surely turn to Andrea Arnold’s bovine-themed film Cow. But Reichardt’s came first of course. The feature began its journey nearly two years ago at Telluride, and finally releases this week in India. The Portland-based filmmaker once again collaborated with writer Jonathan Raymond, this time to adapt his novel The Half-Life.
If the source material spanned four decades, going back and forth between the early 1800s and the present day, Reichardt and Raymond massaged it for screen by cutting it short but making the most curious addition: the titular cow. “With the film shortened to only a few weeks in 1820, the challenge was to bring together the main motifs of Jon’s book in such a short period of time,” Reichardt explains in a Zoom interview. “The cow was a way we could get those themes in and into a smaller world. And so the cow had a really practical sense.”

Evie in First Cow

First Cow reframes the Western through the eyes of two budding entrepreneurs. Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are the kind of underdog figures who wouldn’t usually populate the genre’s founding myths. They aren’t gun-slingers quick on the draw. They are savvy opportunists simply trying to earn a living. So, they start a baking business with whatever little capital they possess. The key ingredient to their oily cakes happens to be the milk they steal each night from the sole cow in the territory. When the wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones) who owns the cow finds out, Cookie and King-Lu learn a harsh lesson: Mess with the bull, you will get the horns.

First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on cattle capitalism and how Satyajit Rays Apu trilogy influenced her film

John Magaro and Orion Lee in First Cow

A present-day prologue sets the stage for a cultural excavation into capitalism’s cattle origins. A cargo barge sails up the Columbia River across the 4:3 frame. Strolling along its riverbank is a young woman (Alia Shawkat) and her dog, who unearth a pair of skeletons buried together in a shallow grave. Thus begins Reichardt’s archaeology into the past, her gaze turning to history for answers on their story and fate. She calls the Columbia River “the thread” that connects the past and the present. “The river was sort of a thoroughfare for commerce even back in the day for acorns and salmon,” she says. “And now, all kinds of stuff come up the Columbia and the barges.” It is on this same trade route her titular cow will make an entrance befitting royalty later in the movie.

Scheming in First Cow becomes about survival. Cookie and King-Lu are forced to siphon off the wealthy to build a livelihood. They are losers trying to be winners in capitalism’s zero-sum game. So they forge a friendship where they can both be each other’s security blanket. “Men like us, Cookie, we have to make our own way,” King-Lu tells his friend. “There are no empire silhouettes or colours du jour for us. We have to take what we can when the taking is good.” To establish an intimacy between Cookie and King-Lu, Reichardt asked herself some key questions: “Who are they, how will they respond, what are their dreams, and what’s their situation at this moment? It’s really just staying with who these people are and what their desires are in the moment they’re living in.”

Throughout her career, Reichardt’s focus has always been on such underdogs living on the fringes of society. Her debut River of Grass offered a fresh perspective on the Bonnie and Clyde myth, imagining Bonnie as an ennui-ridden housewife. Old Joy shows a friendship as tender as the one in First Cow, through a reverse shot on a man-child refusing to grow up. Wendy and Lucy is a road movie as a meditation on loneliness. Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist Western where pilgrims journey into the heart of the desert and into the darkness of their own hearts.

First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on cattle capitalism and how Satyajit Rays Apu trilogy influenced her film

Orion Lee (King-Lu) and John Magaro (Cookie) in First Cow

Just like the dog Lucy did in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt uses the cow Evie to give the actors something to react to. Each night as he milks the cow, Cookie engages in conversation with the animal. He even offers his condolences for the loss of her husband and child during transit. “Cookie being such a down-to-earth person, it just seemed natural for him to talk to the animal,” she says.

Shortening a story spanning decades into a film of around two hours plays into Reichardt’s idea of “elaborated time.” The interstitial pacing imbues an ambient, almost meditative quality, lulling us with the slowness of frontier life. “It’s about getting into the minutiae of the day-to-day life and how a day passes and how a week passes. Everything about film is time,” she says. “So you use it in different ways in different scenes: someone waiting on someone or a still moment can seem really drawn out in a tense situation. In an overall sense, the idea was not to treat time the way we experience everything today, with our hunger for constant change and information. This was about trying to do very little, hold back and experience time in a different way that would have left more time for pondering, fixing your food, fixing your fort, whatever it was.”

The camera thus echoes the quietness of everyday life in the 19th century. Food also gives the period a tangible sense of inhabited realism. She says they used food that you would traditionally find in the region, but to give it an authenticity that went beyond mere research, they included those inviting oily cakes.

Save for her debut, Reichardt has shot and set all her films in Oregon. Similar to her other films, the location scouting informed aspects of First Cow’s story too. “You’re circling around and suddenly the woods become very specific to you because you’re scouting different forest areas and start looking for something really particular. It’s an interesting way to get to know places really. You keep revisiting and imagining your scene: where the sun would come up, and where the windows would go,” she says.
Reichardt, who teaches film every fall at New York’s Bard College, showed her students the same films that went into her own research for First Cow. This included Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. “I seem to go back to Apu all the time or really any of Ray’s films,” she says. “I like the economy of the way they are shot with simple pans, people walking towards the lens and then a slight pan. There’s an economy to it that works nicely with the situation (First Cow’s) characters find themselves in and the economy of their own lives. But also in Ray’s films, people are in these little hutches sitting on the ground. So I looked to these films for shooting inside and outside small spaces at the same time.”

First Cow director Kelly Reichardt on cattle capitalism and how Satyajit Rays Apu trilogy influenced her film

A still from First Cow

In this deceptively small film with a wide scope, Reichardt boxes in her characters in a 4:3 frame, which has the same cramping effect as the colonisers who chose to bind lives in a new world rather than revel in its open expanse. “I always call it a square but it’s not really a square, is it?”, she wonders. “It’s a smaller rectangle. I prefer the shape of it for shooting people, you’re going to be close in on them, especially intimate with them. It’s quite an intimate frame. It’s also about getting more height, and in this case, shooting in a forest in these small hutches where I’d be doing closer shots. Everything about the film was a series of vertical lines so it made more sense. So it was really more about the forest setting, though I justified it in Meek’s in the desert setting too.”
Reichardt’s framing suggests an alienation between her characters and the world they inhabit. As she suggests, we see this in Meek’s Cutoff as the pioneers traverse the arid terrain. There is an inhospitality to it but also a beauty that evades our immediate grasp. The same applies to First Cow. For this is a world where cattle is yet to usher in capitalism, and where capitalism hasn’t completely violated nature, milking it for all it’s worth.

First Cow releases on MUBI on 9 July. Watch the trailer here —

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