First Cow and Nomadland: Perspective from the Margins
Life is a journey… but to where, when you are on the edges of “civilization”? In the movies First Cow (2019, directed by Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond) and Nomadland (2020, directed by Chloe Zhao), it is the human friendships scribed in the margins of society that show a way forward for the protagonists, and for us, too.
But are the perspectives of those friends in the margin the same for each movie? Yes, but also no… not quite. The first perspective is of those who scrambled to get a foothold at the beginning of colonial capitalism, as pioneers brought their first cows and their “civilization” to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The second perspective is of the nomads who were scattered in the wake of the socialquakes of late capitalism. They never had a proper foothold and are now scattered across the face of the Midwest and beyond, reconstructing community out of the rubble of civilization.
Friendship Endures in the Bones and Provides a Home
First Cow gives us an earthy and grounded sense of friendship from its opening, which includes a William Blake quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” This friendship provides a home, and in First Cow, a final and poignant resting place in the ground. Friendship endures in the bones and can be felt in the bones, across time. The opening scene shows a scrubby landscape on the river, a slow-moving barge, and a woman in modern clothing walking her dog, who patiently digs away and then admires the fossilized bones of two people at rest together in the ground. Their bones leave a clear imprint that signifies “friendship,” and the details of the specific violence and destitution that drove the friends to an early death is erased. The perspective to the viewers of First Cow is one of the soothing, slow, (dirt) blanket of time—a perspective that the friends never achieved in life.
Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) are friends that together try to leverage themselves into history by committing crime (an illegal milk heist), but death at the hands of those out for vengeance puts pay to their creative entrepreneurial enterprise. Like the woman at the opening of the film, we can’t uncover the detailed stories of those who failed to leverage themselves into history. But we can take comfort in the friendship they created along the way. This film obligingly provides us with some lovable fellow-travelers that we viewers just want to love out of their premature death and out of their historical obscurity, for all time.
Nomadland is the story of those people who have offered their working lives to late capitalism, and now find themselves living in RV vans and seeking itinerant work along the road. These “nomads” don’t expect to leverage themselves into history, because history has already done its leveraging. Their grand dreams exist outside of (capitalist) history: Linda May, for example, dreams of building an “earthship” and living a sustainable life off the grid (including in real life). Swankie’s grand dreams are of nature, and she takes comfort in her remembered interactions with animals during her kayaking years. Her memories of circling swallows, their nests and fragile eggs, are transcendent and carry her through illness and into death. Bob Wells, the (real-life) RV guru, encourages the new nomad Fern (Frances McDormand) to enjoy the possibilities of community and closeness to nature that comes with being a nomad, and his (real-life) advice to everyone is to reduce their dependence on the dollar. Nomads make do with what they have in their vans: they trade, swap, upcycle, downcycle, repair and share. As Fern embraces her life as a nomad, she takes the remnants of her old life from storage and arranges for them to be disposed of, thus allowing her to tread even more lightly and discreetly across the land.
Recently widowed Fern is pushed out onto the road after social catastrophe strikes Empire (the old-style mining town where she lived with her husband), which is abandoned in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the closing of the mine. Her memories of Empire, her life with her husband, and his passion for his work at United States Gypsum, are contented ones, even if it is the hubris of the failed capitalist project and the company’s presumed complicity in this that has led to her being on the road. It’s ironic that United States Gypsum is a manufacturer of building materials, and yet the homes that have been constructed in Empire to service this industry are now empty. The irony continues when Fern lands herself a job at a crystal market, whose tables of heaped rocks resemble the rubble of the mining enterprise. It is also the rocks at the Badlands National Park that literally offer Fern a new perspective, as she stands atop a large rock to scan for friends, and later takes in the beauty of the Badlands landscape through the air holes of a small weathered rock.
Nomadland begins with a long shot of Fern travelling through a bleak, wintery landscape with her van. There is nowhere but the side of the road to relieve herself. There may not be anywhere to stay. We hear Fern singing a verse of the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” and wondering what angels and/or shepherds are keeping watch as she attempts to find room for her van at an “inn,” or rather, the Desert Rose RV park? The viewer thinks that she may not find room at the park—the receptionist cannot find a booking —until Fern identifies herself as an Amazon employee with parking rights.
The friendships that Fern makes on the road then become her home. Fern is cued to this future by Angela, an Amazon worker, who reads out her “very deep” tattoos as a means of introducing herself to Fern on her first day on the job. The tattooed lyrics from The Smiths and Morrissey invite the viewer to “think of me kindly” and then pose the question answered by the lives of those on the road: “Home, is it just a word or is it something you carry within you?” Fern comes to understand that home is friendship and the memories of friends.
The Good Samaritan Is the Friend on the Margin
Both films offer the viewer options on a Good Samaritan figure. In First Cow, King-Lu is naked and hiding in the bushes, on the run from some Russian criminals. He calls to Cookie, who comes back to him with a biscuit, a risky venture given that he has been threatened by the trappers in his group for not doing his job as cook and producing enough food for them. King-Lu disappears after this act of kindness, and later it seems that he might disappear again after their milking heist is discovered and Chief Factor’s men come after them. But he reappears and slows his escape to help the injured Cookie. Cookie’s delirious joke, his last verbal interaction with King-Lu, is a pun where he asks the difference between a beggar and a baker: they both need/knead bread. Cookie’s joke shows just how quickly roles can be up-ended: he is now the “beggar” who desperately needs his enterprising friend to be a Good Samaritan. At the end King-Lu lays down his life with his friend, failing to fight sleep to stay awake and keep watch for them both.
In Nomadland, Fern needs Swankie’s help when her tire is flat. Swankie emerges from her van as a Good Samaritan that overcomes her (terminally ill) weariness to help Fern, showing Fern unexpected grace by giving her a special session on the ways of vankeeping and some extra paint for the road. Later, Fern tends to her friend Mike (David Strathairn) in his van when he falls seriously ill, and then brings him food in hospital when he requires an operation on his intestines. Mike responds to this kindness by asking Fern to settle down with him, but it appears (at least for Fern) that the Good Samaritan must always leave the inn after paying kindness forward.
Settle Down, or Never Stop Movin’?
Nomadland ends after Fern has made one last poignant visit to the home she abandoned after her husband, Bo, died. Bob Wells comforts Fern with the assertion that there is never a “final goodbye” for those on the road, and that “you’ll see Bo again, and you can remember your lives together then.” Friendship, then, is something eternal, that smooths over grief for those who have to “depart,” because the afterlife will resurrect the friendship by resurrecting the memories of life on earth together.
First Cow depicts the frustrated perspective of poor men who try to make a start within the pioneer culture of the Oregon wilderness. King-Lu, an aspiring businessman, observes that, “history isn’t here yet, it’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on its own terms.” At the start of their (criminal) venture to steal milk from a cow and make cakes for market, King-Lu opines that, for he and Cookie, the puzzle is that there is “no way for a poor man to start. You need capital, or you need some kind of miracle.” Later in the conversation he concludes that you might need crime. The puzzle piece that he attempts to play is always just one more covert, unauthorized milking session with Chief Factor’s “first cow” on the settlement. King-Lu is always pushing to think of ways to exploit something for gain, something overlooked by others, such as the beaver oil in carcasses left over by the trappers. Cookie does not have the same desperate urge to exploit, but is willing to go along with King-Lu’s plans, and is the one with the baking ability that can turn the proceeds of crime into cakes that the settlers are willing to pay for with silver.
Cookie uses his experience of grief and being alone in the world to express his understanding of the world from the cow’s perspective: it’s a difficult thing to lose one’s partner and child, he acknowledges to the cow, and the cow “expresses” a good amount of milk in return, an amount that it is not willing to offer to its legal owner. Cookie has the same orphan perspective as the cow, and it explains why he has never settled down properly: “My mother died when I was born. And then my father died. It’s why I never stopped movin’.”
By contrast, Fern does have family, but this family is part of the reason she feels the need to be on the move. Fern is propelled to the road after being widowed, but her visit with her sister Dolly also shows that she felt compelled to hit the road at an early age. Dolly wants to let Fern know what a huge “hole” that Fern’s early leaving left in her life, at the same time as she points out how “weird” and “eccentric” Fern was when they were growing up together. Dolly’s assertion that she always felt that Fern was actually brave, like a “pioneer,” appears to be cold comfort to Fern, who was actually always happy to let her husband live out his company ambition while she beaded a string of less rewarding jobs alongside him.
Fern’s stay with her friend Mike and his family, and his newly rediscovered contentment within his extended “feast of a family,” only make her feel more alienated and alone, pushing her back into nomad life. She is different from Cookie, who “settles down” with King-Lu the moment he applies his housekeeping skills to King-Lu’s rough-hewn cottage, sweeping the dirt floor and filling a jar with flowers. Cookie is the nurturing one: he is the one left “holding the baby” when a brawl breaks out in a tavern, to endearing effect. Fern is also left holding the (grand)baby at Mike’s house, but even though she is able to soothe the baby to sleep on her own, the overall effect of the scene is to highlight Fern’s sense of stranded isolation in and amongst a family that want to embrace her: she is an existential orphan.
The Economy of the Margin
Both films embed a critique of the ethics at play in economic systems. In Nomadland, Fern causes seemingly unpardonable offense at a dinner party at her sister’s place when she lets the real estate agents there know that she does not think it is right to sell homes to people that can’t afford them. In First Cow, the Chief Factor flexes with an extended didactic presentation to guests about corporal punishment: sometimes it is good for subordinates to see their recalcitrant fellows die from harsh punishment—the motivation that results is a benefit that outweighs the cost.
Both movies also show how those at the edge of society are apt to be self-consciously aware of their involvement in capitalist “finesse”: King-Lu proudly announces to customers that the cakes include “ancient Chinese ingredients,” trading on his presentation within the settlement as someone exotic. Fern’s young friend Derek (Derek Endres) is proud to offer her his “dinosaur bone” cigarette lighter even though he has an amused awareness that its provenance is probably dubious (“I only know what they tell me.”). The films also ridicule those who are captive to capitalism, who yearn for the “taste of England” and for civilized clafoutis to be on display on the frontier, and those retirees that purchase elaborate “recreational vehicles” with fancy downlights and luxury toilets for the road. First Cow also shows that the pioneer hierarchies imposed by colonial capitalism were ridiculous given that there was already civilization and a First Nation in residence.
What You Did for the Least of These, You Did for Me
Why are filmmakers recently interested in the perspectives of those who have not, and will not, make footprints in official history as they travel their roads? These films do not romanticize life at the margins, nor do they offer the contemporary middle class a blueprint for authenticity—for an idea of the “road is life” as a bourgeois luxury indulged in by those “safe enough to pretend this is all there is” (a tendency of many contemporary cultural scripts, as James K. A. Smith has noted).
Perhaps an answer is that both films offer their characters to us as fellow travelers on the road of life. Friendship, the comfort that warms weary bones. Sometimes it calls to us from the campfire, like Linda May, and we take comfort from the warmth of the call even as we say hello and stride off to take our existential self for a brief walk. Both films are parables, in that their stories invite us to project the same journey onto our experience. As Mark Turner notes in The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language (1996), we need parables: as humans we just can’t help but project stories onto stories in order to make sense of everyday life.
What spaces of imaginative reflection do these films open up for Christians? Jesus himself had nowhere to lay his head, unlike the wild animals and the birds around him (Luke 9:58). His important mission years were spent on the road, vulnerable to rejection, followed by crowds eager to exploit his reputation for the miraculous, a travelling life held together by the precarious hospitality shown to him and his friends. If the people were not friendly, the only time that was to be taken was the time needed to shake the dust off of one’s feet before moving on to the next town (Matthew 10:14). Jesus was keen to announce that his kingdom was for the poor—people who (like him) might not have the security of a home, people dependent on the charity of others. The poor were first on his invitation list, the one drafted by the prophet Isaiah (Luke 4:18).
There are many people that circle us, that weave past and through our lives, whose travail is invisible to us, and who ultimately leave us in peace, lives unremarked. How can their perspectives be more than an entertaining diversion in the margin of our own lives? The Parable of the Great Banquet that Jesus told reminds us that he issues a special invitation to the banquet for those who are poor and who might be out on country roads because they are not at home in this world (Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:15-24). Perhaps a helpful direction is to note that both films end in death, as will our lives. And at the end, our end, we know that it is the comfort that we have provided to the “least of these” along the road that Jesus will himself take as comfort (Matthew 25:40). In fact, it is the least of these who turn out to be, and to always have been, the lives of the party as the margins were scribed.
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