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.


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.

Let's get one thing straight: Ricky Gervais is an absolute jerk.

He's incredibly condescending about his atheism, he's defended transphobia, he's mocked Anne Frank, and he's generally built a career around making people uncomfortable. He's also pretty f*cking brilliant. The original creator of the international phenomenon The Office, Gervais' brand of clever cringe humor has helped to shape the direction of comedy for the last decade. As such, he was tapped to host the Golden Globes first in 2010, when he quickly set a precedent for edgy jokes made at the expense of the award show's famous guests. His obvious disregard for the status quo and willingness to offend powerful people was oddly refreshing, earning the awards show some of their highest ratings in years, resulting in Gervais returning as host for a record five times as of 2020.

This year, Gervais quickly made it clear that he planned to go for shock factor even more than usual, saying, "You'll be pleased to know this is the last time I'm hosting these awards, so I don't care anymore. I'm joking. I never did." He then went on to absolutely lambaste the Hollywood establishment, earning many dropped jaws and even an irritated look from Tom Hanks. His most controversial comments included:

"Many talented people of color were snubbed in major categories. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can do about that. Hollywood Foreign press are all very racist."

" Leonardo DiCaprio attended the premiere and by the end his date was too old for him. Even Prince Andrew was like, 'Come on, Leo, mate.You're nearly 50-something.'"

"Talking of all you perverts, it was a big year for pedophile movies. Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland, Two Popes. Shut up. Shut up. I don't care."

And then, finally, perhaps most scathing of all, he closed with: "So if you do win an award tonight, don't use it as a platform to make a political speech. You're in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, and your God and f*ck off, OK? It's already three hours long."

It soon became evident that many of the award presenters and winners ignored Gervais' advice. Michelle Williams called on more women to engage with politics, Jennifer Aniston delivered a brief speech calling for climate action on Russell Crowe's behalf, and Patricia Arquette denounced Trump and called on everyone to vote in 2020. And while each of these statements were met with applause from the audience, they also rang a bit hollow in the wake of Gervais' assertion that these ultra-rich, privileged celebrities know nothing of the real world. Jennifer Aniston is worth $240 million, Russell Crowe is worth $95 million, Michelle Williams is worth $16 million, and Patricia Arquette is worth $24 million dollars– meaning that each of these celebrities benefit from the system of late capitalism that has brought about the rise of the far right and climate change.

But isn't it still admirable that they chose to use their platforms for advocacy? Or is it simply hollow virtue signalling meant to make these extremely privileged people seem compassionate and "woke" in the eyes of the public? But if these kinds of statements make a positive impact regardless, does it matter? Do we have any reason to believe there is any positive change actually brought about because of political award show acceptance speeches? Is it all smoke and mirrors, like the rest of Hollywood?

Or maybe these aren't the right questions at all. Maybe what we should be asking is why anyone gives a sh*t what actors have to say in the first place. Gervais is right, at least, in that many of the glamorous guests at the Golden Globes aren't college educated, have been removed from the financial struggles of your average American for years, and generally exist in an isolated bubble of privilege. Though, one has to wonder what gives Gervais the right to engage in these conversations if he's so vehemently discouraging other celebrities from doing so. Afterall, his net worth is estimated at $130 million, so what does he know about the real world, either? One glance at his Twitter account makes it clear he is no stranger to political conversations, and he obviously takes great pride in feeling superior to other celebrities and Twitter users. One thing is clear: Gervais did not make such a controversial speech because of some genuine desire for change. He said what he said to stir controversy, to make himself feel superior, and to illicit reactions from the room. But that doesn't mean he was wrong.

Perhaps one has to ultimately conclude that all of it is nothing but a distraction from the only hope to save our world from its cycle of decay: big, structural change that can only happen as a result of a complete overhaul of our political system, culture, and collective perspective. Maybe celebrities have nothing to do with it. Maybe they're a part of the problem and can't be a part of the solution no matter how political they get when accepting shiny statues from antiquated and racist institutions.


The 77th Golden Globe Awards, Starring the Climate Crisis

Actors used their acceptance speeches to speak out on the tragic fires in Australia and other humanitarian issues.

Though the Golden Globe Awards are intended to honor the best of motion pictures and television, last night's ceremony occurred in the shadows of the multiple humanitarian crises occurring around the world.

Ricky Gervais' brash opening monologue set the scene for a night full of critical political commentary, and many actors used their acceptance speeches to expand on a multitude of issues, the most common topic being the fires in Australia that have killed over 20 people and millions of animals. Though that crisis is happening miles and miles away from Beverly Hills, it was only a few minutes into the Golden Globes that those fires hit close to home.

Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon together presented the nominees for Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture for TV, among whom Russell Crowe won. But the Loudest Voice actor wasn't there to accept his award; he was home in Australia helping to protect his family and his house from the fire. Aniston shared a message from him: "The tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate change-based. We need to act based on science, move our global force to renewable energy, and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future."

Australian Bushfires Given Spotlight At Golden Globes

Stars like Ellen Degeneres and Cate Blanchett gave their hopeful sentiments to Australia during their speeches, while others like Joaquin Phoenix used the opportunity to call out some of their peers: "It's really nice that so many people have come up and sent their well wishes to Australia, but we have to do more than that," the actor said, accepting his Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture award for portraying the title character of Joker. "We don't have to take private jets to Palm Springs for the award sometimes, or back. Please. And I'll try to do better and I hope you will, too."

Michelle Williams used her speech to call for her fellow women to vote in the upcoming presidential election, while Patricia Arquette expressed her fear for potential war following President Trump's decision to assassinate top Iran general Qassem Soleimani last week. Gervais, however, was having none of it, pointing out the hypocrisy of Hollywood "wokeness."

"If you do win an award tonight, don't use it as a platform to make a political speech," the host urged. "You're in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and f--k off, OK?"

Whether Gervais' suggestion was fair is up for a long debate, but the climate crisis was definitely the Golden Globes' surprise star.