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American film questions the arbitrariness of private property

To work, baker Cookie needs milk from a cow that isn't his.

First Cow is an American-produced film that ranks first among the best of last year according to the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema[1].

The film is indeed good and deserves attention for how its director, Kelly Reichardt, addresses the issue of private property and its impact on the lives of individuals on the edge of marginality.

The plot tells the story of the baker Cookie (John Magaro) and the Chinese adventurer King-Lu (Orion Lee) during the colonization of Oregon in the first decades of the 19th century. In the vast territory, hunters and miners survive in a wild environment.

A shred of state organization is present in a frontier fort, commanded by a Chief Administrator (Toby Jones), an authority figure with superficial bourgeois tastes, who controls the fledgling commerce, the few militaries, and the social hierarchy. He owns the first cow in the region.

Poor, out of work, and driven by a petty-bourgeois ambition that includes current entrepreneurial dreams such as opening a hotel or a bakery, the friends decide to take the cow's milk to make and sell fried dumplings to the inhabitants of the fort.

In the mix between opportunity, supply and demand, the delicacy becomes an instant success. They receive in return gemstones, credit notes, and other forms of payment that describe how imprecise and vague the creation of value is.

The arbitrariness also extends to the ingredients of the recipe. At one point, the General Manager invites the baker to make a French delicatessen to impress a Captain (Scott Shepherd) who has just arrived from Paris.

The candy needs two specific ingredients: milk that is almost non-existent and red fruits, such as blueberries, found in droves in the woods. The recipe thus becomes an example of how capitalist reasoning, arbitrary and abstract, imposes itself.

Given the legal fact that the only cow is the property of the Chief Manager, milking it without permission means stealing milk, an act that can lead to punishment. On the other hand, harvesting blueberries in the forest is legitimate because there is still no legal order - a fence - that legitimizes the land as someone's property.

With the simple example of a pie, the film points out how absurd, unfair, and selfish the social relations of production are. The work, that is, Cookie's ability to transform the ingredients into a product, the most valuable element of the recipe, is relegated to the background.

Wendy and Lucy

Kelly Richardt is a director who has been tackling social issues for some time now. In Wendy and Lucy (2008), the theme is similar to First Cow.

In the story, Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a young worker who travels from Indiana to Alaska to find a job in a cannery. She has very little money, a car, and the company of her dog Lucy.

Upon arriving in an Oregon town, the car breaks down, causing a series of misfortunes that make her lose Lucy. The few resources go away quickly, showing how any improvement plan is fragile for people denied any opportunity.

Repression of crimes such as theft is also present here. Another point in common is the presence of a class traitor. Finally, it is worth mentioning that there is something of Mona, a character from Vagabond, by Agnès Varda, in Wendy's journey (read our analysis here).

It is good to find American filmmakers engaged in producing films with political and social themes that question capitalist values ​​and the abstracting foundations that sustain them, as is the case of private property, in films such as Frist Cow and Wendy and Lucy.


First Cow, Wendy and Lucy are on Mubi.

[1] The film was released in 2019, but the magazine accounts for when it arrived in the French territory.


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