First Cow

by Álvaro André Zeini Cruz

In a scene from First Cow, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) takes an iron pot from the fire and crosses a small hut to lay it on a sideboard flush with the earthen floor. This domestic utensil, the object of the action, is the centre of the shot and carries the camera’s gaze from one place to another; Figowitz, the subject, is cut off by the edge of the frame. Once the pan is left, he steps away, giving the camera a cue to perform a vertical correction. This camera correction (a tilt) reveals King-Lu (Orion Lee) crisscrossed by the wall of poorly joined planks. Half-veiled, he washes himself with his hands using water from a barrel. He puts on his shirt and steps out to the right of the frame, drawing the camera, which finds him unhindered as he walks through the door and window, two prominent architectural elements in westerns. But if in the classic western, doors and windows reveal prairies, deserts and everything that can come from the outside world, in this one, directed by Kelly Reichardt, it is the house, the inside world, which will reveal something characteristic of a domestic environment: when King-Lu returns from dealing with the chickens, he finds Figowitz’s scone on the windowsill. The dough was made from milk that, together, they stole from a local bigwig, owner of the only cow in the region. In front of the scone – a crumb of comfort in that inhospitable environment – ​​King-Lu smiles and looks at Figowitz in the extra field, inside the cabin, this unexpected home that the two of them built.

The big shot is a local merchant, played by Tobby Jones. Owner of an elegant house, which contrasts with the poverty and rusticity around, he hires – without knowing – the pair of milk thieves. Figowitz and King-Lu engage in dialogue (and switch positions) about the Merchant: would power make that man dangerous or foolish? The fact is that, before their paths cross again, the Merchant sleeps deeply, while the house servant – an indigenous man dressed as a European – unhurriedly extinguishes the candles in the rooms. Again, the camera movement is triggered, this time in a more complex way: although the lateral travelling contemplates the denotative action of following this employee’s wanderings (who even slides through the depth of field), the camera establishes the Merchant’s prone body as a limiting axis. The movement accompanies the employee in the background, but the Merchant’s body rules it, the man of the house, whose power (and cruelty) are explicit in a previous dialogue. The scene recognizes the centrality of this man but does not free him from the ambiguity: if the camera cannot shake him, it can at least swing – rhythmically by the snoring – from the menacing head to the tiny feet of this power holder (and the squad of Tobby Jones is fundamental in the construction of these ambiguities).

Two short scenes, two camera moves. In the first, the organic movement crowns the domestic routine structured by the complicity between two men. Their affection is limited to friendship but goes beyond loyalty, a preponderant value among allied men in westerns. Although it also serves to follow the action of a character, the movement of the second scene is mechanical, tied to the weight of the power that solemnly snores while serving as a gravitational core to the servant of the house. In one, the camera pursues with calculated ease the object that contains the action and relationship of Figowitz and King-Lu (and, ironically, the great adventure of this western involves the act of cooking); in another, all that remains is the calculation of the almost exhibitionist plan, affected by the ambition of the nameless man (called only the “Chief Merchant”) who triggers it.

The confrontation proposed by Kelly Reichardt is not the classic duel because there is barely any horizon for it to happen. The clash here is between the man who came from Europe (and still has his mind there) to explore everything that can be explored and those who survive and understand that survival involves populating. For that, a house, or even a cabin, is needed, but also something that goes beyond architectural existence. Something that tastes like home, as one of the characters says. No wonder that the climax imposes precisely an escape, the impediment to return to the domestic environment, to the cosy scones they shared between plans and conversations. When they stop to rest, King-Lu offers to keep watch but soon falls asleep beside Figowitz. In the close-up of faces in peaceful sleep, Reichardt dispenses with the need for a foundation, planks, ceiling, doors and windows. There is a home in that friendship.

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