FILM

Glorious Food: On Kelly Reichardt's "First Cow"

There are no good or bad people in Kelly Reichardt's films. There are just people who, despite often being trapped in circumstances beyond their control, have to make choices.

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The other day I saw two adults face off over a box of spaghetti.

The pasta shelf was otherwise empty. Desperate shoppers were loading up their carts with provisions that would, they seemed to hope, last them long enough to outlast the onslaught of the virus-that-shall-not-be-named. The two pasta hunters pulled at opposite ends of the box for a second. They glared at each other. Neither spoke. Then, because we live in a civilized society where it's not really that hard to find dry spaghetti, one of them let go with a huff, turned around, and walked away.

I thought about that while watching First Cow, the new, luminous feature film by Kelly Reichardt. In one scene, a group of men stand in line–each clutching something valuable, shells or coins or a paper deed of currency–waiting patiently for the chance to buy a sweet cake. These are gruff, dirty, smelly men who've found their way to the Oregon Territory sometime in the late nineteenth century, in search of riches, work, or perhaps a little corner of the woods to call their own. There aren't many cakes available. They're going fast. A young man's eyes follow each transaction, his mind calculating whether he'll make it to the front of the line before the final cake is gone. He does. There's one left. Suddenly, from behind him, an arm shoots out. A hard-faced elder takes the sweet, pays, walks away. The young man stands there aghast. He too, eventually, walks away.

First Cow Kelly Reichardt A24

There are no good or bad people in Kelly Reichardt's films. There are just people who, despite often being trapped in circumstances beyond their control–of gender, class, culture, geography, weather, biology–have to make their own choices. There are, to be sure, right and wrong choices, but "right" can mean many things, depending on the person and the circumstances. Right can mean morally correct, but it may also mean appropriate, advisable, expedient, or necessary, and everybody knows that those imperatives often exist in opposition to each other.

First Cow is about food (I mean, the protagonist's name is "Cookie," for crying out loud). Everything that lives must eat. First Cow shows chicken gobbling feed, and the cow chewing on grass, and a cat pawing at table leftovers; there's a pack of wolves snarling ravenously as they hunt for prey. But there's food and there's food. We eat because we need to but also because most of us love it, not just to fill our bellies but to nourish our souls.

The most crucial choices in First Cow are made by Cookie (John Magaro), a sensitive, flutey-voiced baker's apprentice from the East Coast, and King Lu (Orion Lee), an adventurous Chinese man with a gentlemanly manner and high ambitions. Although First Cow is the story of their friendship, it's not about friendship, or, I should say, it is, but in a strange, wonderful, roundabout way. It's not about cows either, though it does feature a cow.

The two first meet when Cookie finds King Lu hiding amidst the foliage, stark naked, and shivering. Cookie is a bringer and a finder and a maker of food. King Lu's first word to him is "hungry." So Cookie brings him food. Reichardt follows him as he forages for mushrooms, picks blueberries, pulls fish out of a stream. At King Lu's urging, Cookie steals some milk from the titular cow, imported to the hinterland by the pompously British Chief Factor (Tobey Jones) to make a batch of biscuits. It's King Lu who suggests they take Cookie's creations "to market," where Chief Factor anoints them as "delicious baked comestibles."

Neither one is someone you'd call a good guy. Cookie's nice, but he also leaves a baby unattended for the chance to drink a few sips of moonshine. King Lu is a thief and a killer. Still, they find and link themselves to each other with a finality already hinted at in the film's opening moments, and they make a chain of choices, some small, some momentous, some separately, some together. Their bond is formed as each saves the other's life–Cookie feeds a starving King Lu, who later returns the gesture by taking the cook in when he's run out of money and options. As their circumstances worsen and their options narrow over time, that bond becomes the core of their existence. The expressions on their faces as they find each other at a late, crucial moment–the concern, the relief, the love–are Reichardt's answer to that most fundamental question: What do we live for?

We need contact with others as much as we need food, which is why the virus-that-shall-not-be-named is messing with our heads. But true friendship is a rare thing–as rare, and as precious, as a dough puff slathered in honey is to a frontier woodsman who wears a dead possum for a hat.

With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.

Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.

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"Invisible Man" and "Parasite": The New Haunted House

Welcome to the haunted houses of the neoliberal era.

We all know the archetypal horror movie haunted house—slouched, rotting porch, frayed curtains, dark, abandoned rooms crowned with creaking chandeliers.

In two of this year's best films, Leigh Wannel's Invisible Man and Boon Jong-Ho's Oscar-winning Parasite, a new kind of haunted house emerges as a central character. In appearance, these houses couldn't be more different from the classic haunted mansion. Modern, glamorous, and clean, filled with large windows and light, the houses are symbols of overwhelming luxury, the supposed end result of consumerist freedom.

But as the films progress, the houses turn into loci of violence, and, ultimately, they act as symbols for privilege and neoliberal capitalism at its most violent. If haunted houses embody our deepest personal and cultural fears, these houses are haunted by money.

The House in Invisible Man: Elizabeth Moss Flees Silicon Valley

Invisible Man stars Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia, a woman who flees an abusive relationship only to be stalked by an invisible version of her ex-lover. It's as creepy as it sounds, but one of the film's eeriest scenes is the very first sequence in which Moss tries to escape from her boyfriend's hyper-luxurious oceanfront property.

Her boyfriend's name is Adrian, and as we hear several times, he's a pioneer in the field of optics, some sort of Silicon Valley master of mind control and optical illusions. His home is equipped with a massive bed below a wall-sized window that overlooks the ocean. It's studded with cameras and completely devoid of chaos or signs of human existence; it's essentially been bleached of life.

As we discover later, Adrian is an obsessive control freak, but even without knowing this, the house feels prison-like, its luxury a warped, dystopian facade. Moss's character, Cecilia, might as well be living in a fishbowl or an Apple store.

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In the modern horror movie house, since all signs of life—beautiful or terrible—have been scrubbed as clean as the countertops, ghosts and demons collect in basements and antechambers. In Adrian's walled, palm tree-rimmed home, the lower floor is full of futuristic technology, creepy suits and cameras trapped in glass cases. Everything is visible, arranged as neatly as a newly reset iPhone's home screen, but because of the home's hyper-visibility, privacy is not an option. The house's inhabitants are constantly under surveillance.

With its silver and blue tones, like flashing screens of death, Adrian's beachfront property seems like a commentary on the excesses and illusions of Silicon Valley—a new monster if there ever was one.

"The Invisible Man is a physical manifestation and exaggeration of the queasiness with surveillance capitalism: the feeling of someone watching you, of someone stringing together the clues you didn't mean to leave, of someone – a person, a company, the algorithm – knowing more about you than you know about yourself," writes Adrian Horton for The Guardian. As tech companies track our information and influence our elections, and as we teeter on the edge of an AI revolution, and as we remain glued to our phones despite our best efforts to pry ourselves away, the supposed modern luxury of technology often feels like an invisible stalker, a shadow that could—feasibly, someday—overtake our lives, and consume our thoughts.

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The Invisible Man and His Invisible Hands: H. G. Wells's Gilded Class Parable

The Invisible Man was loosely inspired by a novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. It's the story of a student named Griffin who finds a way to become invisible and uses his powers to terrorize the English countryside. It was one of the earliest works of science fiction, and like many works in the genre, it's about the dangers of innovation.

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Outside of his love for science fiction and time travel, Wells was also a passionate socialist who dedicated much of his life to the Labour movement, and The Invisible Man can be read as an imperfect parable about class. "Griffin's invisibility symbolizes the working of an impersonal, decentralized, and—in Wells's view—dangerously chaotic market economy, which fails to respect the dictates of either traditional communal ties or established government authorities," writes Paul A. Cantor in Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. "In effect, what is most significant about Griffin is his invisible hand. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had argued that in an unfettered market economy, an invisible hand guides the self-seeking actions of individual entrepreneurs for the good of the community as a whole."

The original Invisible Man oscillates between metropolitan London and the rural English countryside, and the contrast emphasizes the disjointed relationship between the two. In the new film version, Adrian's house is the modern representation of a gilded-age London metropolis, where inequality was as stark as it is in today's San Francisco, where the city's massive homeless population languishes outside the doors of its tech-money elite.

That juxtaposition also defines the actual best movie of the year: Parasite.

Parasite: The Class Divide in Two Houses

Like The Invisible Man, Parasite's narrative swivels around a single, extraordinarily beautiful home. If anything, the Park family home in Parasite is a far more central character than Adrian's house in The Invisible Man, though the two serve similar purposes.

Parasite's Park house is airy, spacious, and almost brutally neat. With its carefully arranged stacks of plates that seem poised to crash at any moment and its wall-sized window that overlooks a vividly green yard, it represents the ultimate new-money achievement. Of course, just like the haunted houses of yore, its grand facade is doomed to fall from the start.

"The house opens up like an elaborate jewel box, with plot elements that hinge on the architecture: hiding, eavesdropping, scheming," writes E. Alex Jung in Variety. "More than a house, it becomes a map of class psychology and the resentment that simmers beneath the surface."

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Boon Jong-Ho meticulously designed the modernist Park home from the ground up, and every inch serves a narrative purpose. "We needed a structure and a level where Mr. Park couldn't see Ki-taek's family whatsoever, whether they were lying straight or on their sides," Bong told Variety.

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In a battle of luxury, the Park house is a formidable opponent to Adrian's ostentatious mansion. In The Invisible Man, Adrian's isolated hilltop home hides his cloak of invisibility and his abusive behavior. In Parasite, the stunning Park home—with its huge bathtubs, its vast counter space, and warm lighting and neat structure—rests on top of class violence and oppression.

Parasite tells the story of the Kim family as they indoctrinate themselves into the Park's lives, persuading the gullible and wealthy family to give them jobs and drinking in the illusion of their wealth until it all inevitably collapses. The film accomplishes its portrait of class divides through a purposeful use of levels. The Kim family lives below the Park family (literally below ground), crammed in a dingy half-basement half-apartment with a single window overlooking the street. Even while they're in the Park home, the Kims are often purposefully obscured.

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But all hidden things must go somewhere, and in Parasite, secrets hide below. Deep down in the bottom of the Park home is a second basement, created by the house's original owners in case of a nuclear apocalypse. Parks' former housekeeper's husband Geun-se, who is on the run from debt collectors after the failure of his cake shop, has been hiding for years.

Crowded and poorly lit, the bunker exists in dramatic opposition to the rest of the home. It's a secret ulcer in the belly of the Park family's charming, clean lives, which—no matter how well-intentioned they may be—exist literally on top of others' suffering.

The only one in the family who comes in contact with the man living below is the Parks' youngest son, Da-song, who once spotted Geun-sae and thought he saw a ghost. Of course, Da-song is right: The house is haunted, though not by anything supernatural. Similarly, the horrors in The Invisible Man aren't supernatural: they're horrors of science, horrors of progress and mind-control.

In some ways, Adrian's house and the Park house are new haunted houses that symbolize new problems; they're emblems of gentrification at its most evolved and of modern capitalism pushed over the brink of sustainability. Resolutely smoothing over horrors with luxury, control, and surveillance, the houses emphasize a dissonance distinct to modern times but also universal in the human experience. After all, so many of our grandest achievements were built on the backs of others' suffering.

At the ends of both films, order collapses and a massive storm guides the narratives to their natural conclusions. As the illusions and lies of these houses are washed away by the rain, new voices are given space to speak; the help, the wanted, the female partners of successful men. Maybe some houses are simply made to fall.

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