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NYFF 2019: First Cow, Fire Will Come, Endless Night, Martin Eden

When gifted a lineup of two dozen or more films, it’s tempting and not always a voluntary exercise to find links, thematic or otherwise, between them. And there are numerous through-lines but the one by which I found myself most preoccupied was the constant appearance of cows. Everywhere you looked, cows. What did it mean? Was the selection committee trying to remind us of the many natural splendored things we will miss if we don’t consider our part in the slow destruction of the planet? Does Dennis Lim just love cows? All were acceptable answers because it’s always good to see a cow on screen. Huge but gentle, eyes filled with genuine terror at every new sight they don’t immediately trust, loping gate like a dog that woke up two tons heavier and doesn’t know how or why. Cows don’t need us, we need them, or anyway we have made it abundantly clear we are not prepared to live without them, and yet we don’t tend to ascribe much in the way of cinematic symbology to them because we rely too much on their wholesale slaughter. If children grew up loving cows the way they do dogs and cats, the fast food industry might start to sweat. They’re very like us in ways, lead about by people who don’t know any greater purpose than to keep us alive long enough to prophet from us or kill us. A cow won’t ever have a great life when it meets a person. It will, at best, have company. 

Kelly Reichardt has pulled off something quite special in her new Western comedy “First Cow,” immersing us in the mud of history and then slowly drawing out a narrative we’ll recognize without compromising her signature style. The lovely and too frequently underutilized John Magaro plays the hapless cook named Otis on a fur trapping expedition. One night while foraging he finds a naked man (Orion Lee, in a performance one imagines will make his career) on the run from an angry Russian frontiersman. The kindness Otis shows the man, whose name we’ll learn is King Lu, will be repaid at the nearest town, a little merchant village that sprung up around a fort and ruled over by a bitter aristocrat called Chief Factor (Toby Jones, magnificent). King Lu gives Otis, or Cookie as he’s called, a place to stay in his tiny cabin and then gifts him with the confidence to start dreaming about the life he wants.

The visual dissociation between Otis’ dream of opening a fancy inn, Lu’s dreams of making it big in San Francisco, and the dusty squalor in which they live create a kind of space of shared and assured rapture. They want great things and we can almost see them by the firelight of Lu’s hovel. Their dreams suddenly seem attainable when Chief Factor gets the first cow in the territory and Lu hits on the idea of milking it in secret so Otis can bake them something proper. Once Lu tastes them all he can think to do is bring them to the fort and sell them, but as the poet Christopher George Latore Wallace tells us, mo’ money all too often comes with mo’ problems. 

Slavering devotee of production design that I am, I could talk forever about the way Reichardt and her art team created the agreeably grotesque past. The fur clothes, the muddy trails bisecting junk cabins, burly frontiersman putting their babies on the bar while they brawl in the streets. This is the kind of hellhole you could happily spend eternity. The presence of the great René Auberjonois as a crow-festooned local kook can only bring to mind his turn as the barkeep in the original mud western “McCabe And Mrs. Miller,” and indeed it's Robert Altman’s gently comic darkness that Reichardt aims at and hits without breaking a sweat. The relationship between Lu and Cookie is like that shared between George Segal and Elliott Gould in “California Split,” the lengthy con that takes up the second half of the film brings to mind the Great Depression heist film “Thieves Like Us,” and the world is a sousing to that of “McCabe.” Reichardt makes all of these things her own, trading Altman’s browns for her generous helpings of soft greens, and believing more generally in the potential of people for good than Altman ever did, without discounting their boundless capacity for selfishness and violence either. She walks the tonal tightrope with ease, of course, she’s got to be among the five greatest American filmmakers of our time. It’s not surprising that “First Cow” is great, it’s only shocking the ways in which it demonstrates its greatness, for many of them are not typical of her approach to story construction or scene-building.

The chemistry between Christopher Blauvelt’s camera and the Pacific Northwest setting is as loving as that between Lu and Cookie, and later Cookie and the cow, with whom he carries on beautiful one-sided conversations as he milks her in the dead of night. Reichardt told the crowd at NYFF that the legendary experimental filmmaker Peter Hutton, with whom she used to teach at Bard College and to whom the film is dedicated, used to provide her the best feedback. When presented with her lithe and paranoid "Night Moves" back in 2013, he said “It’s too much of a movie.” One wonders what he’d think of “First Cow,” which is just about her most conventional film, what with its bovine tete-a-tete, comic caper plot, and the snobs-vs-slobs subtext that emerges in the final act. Reichardt even tries her hand at some old school comic editing, as Lu carries on a conversation with a mute Cookie through three different edits that take him from morning to night without dropping the thread of his logic. 

It’s funny to see Reichardt’s slow cinema style applied to recognizable beats, but it’s also a joy because her durational approach allows the joke to gather unexpected momentum: in short we don’t know the joke she’s telling until it’s over and the laughter is three times greater for it. Reichardt shared with us that the truly adorable cow in the film now has a calf and its name is Cookie. The film will melt your heart in the same way that story ought to, but it’s also an exacting work, honest and beautiful, funny and true to human nature, and one of the great poet of the American landscape’s best films. One can tell a lot about how a person films a cow, and what the cow gives to the cinema in return. 

Cows are also front and center in Oliver Laxe’s "Fire Will Come," his quiet follow-up to his blistering 2016 “Mimosas.” “Mimosas” was wrought with propulsion, bursting off the screen, with narrative threads and disdain for traditional chronology coiled inside its machinery like a spring loaded snake. “Fire Will Come” looks at first to be just as profound and arresting, just as alive. The prologue shows mighty, mangy trees falling one after another before we cut to the great unfeeling machines tearing them down below. They’re piloted by men but you wouldn’t know it from the way Laxe films them, like leviathans swallowing the landscape. The film becomes more conventionally slow afterwards, following a man named and played by Amador played by a man named Amador Arias (the degree to which Laxe blends fact and fiction is probably the film’s most interesting mystery) who returns home after serving time for an Arson conviction. His mother is happy to see him, and could use the help grazing her cattle. The rest of the locals look on Amador with suspicion and derision. They bring up his crime early and often. Amador himself is cagey about his own guilt, neither confirming nor denying his precise involvement. The title, however, is a promise, and the prejudice of even the nicest villager is tested when they want someone to blame.

“Fire Will Come” is great in stretches but a bit underwhelming as a whole. The ideas certainly work, that it’s ok when men driving earth movers destroy the forest but a fire needs a single culprit; Laxe is very convincingly picking apart our moral ineptitude for dealing with the destruction of the world. It’s the construction of his argument that leaves one wanting, with too many conversations filmed indifferently. Amador and his mother are our POV characters and they are remote, to say the least. His mother, played by Benedicta Sánchez, is a splendid screen presence, telegraphing her emotions from beneath her immovably wrinkled face. Watching her tend to her cows could have been a whole movie, but I suppose we wouldn’t have learned much. The best scene in the film is probably a cow in the back of vet’s truck listening to Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" as the wind blows through its horns. That kind of majesty is what I expect from Laxe, but I guess he earned a minor work after "Mimosas." His cinematographer Mauro Herce, whose images of trees and fires will stick with me as long as anything in the movie, on the other hand, isn’t taking it easy. He’s also at NYFF having shot “Endless Night” for Eloy Enciso Cachafeiro. I was unfamiliar with Cachafeiro but it didn’t take long to discover that I liked what he was up to. 

Endless Night” is set across two days during Generalisimo Franco’s waning days as the iron-fisted ruler of Spain; the film picks up and drops characters as it needs them. We meet a waitress fed up with customers who don’t tip and no one to complain to but a beggar on the steps of a cathedral who hates the priest who passes him every day. Across the street a police station is being constructed and they both curse the worker building it. He tells them that if he didn’t someone else will and why shouldn’t he feed his family. Eventually the movie picks a protagonist, a man fleeing from the authorities, whose letters home are read in grim voice over as he traverses the Spanish countryside in the dead of the night. 

The film’s methodology suggests a slow cinema, surrealism-stripped take on Bunuel’s 1969 “The Milky Way,” in which modern Europe is critiqued by antic visions of its past. Here the hideous treatment of dissidents mocks the tranquil Spanish hinterland. A woman with a monologue about her own awful torture at the hands of the fascists is answered with a shot of a hand caressing the fur of a cow. Savagery, tenderness. Cachafeiro’s rhythm and sensuous images are magnificent. The film may look slight but it becomes as mammoth as the cow in hindsight. 

Martin Eden”’s own animal life is meant to directly mirror the lives of the working class Italians who make up half its populace. The other half are moneyed and judgmental, lives free from toil. “Martin Eden” is an adaptation of a lesser known Jack London (“The Call of the Wild”, “White Fang”). It had been adapted once with none other than Glenn Ford in the lead, and if you didn’t know it existed until reading this sentence, you’re likely not alone. London’s socialism is not something that literary populists or schools felt the need to keep with his legacy of survival in the woods. Stories like “To Build A Fire” work better in a capitalist, individualist society when you ignore what the author himself believed. “Martin Eden” is one of his more overt reckonings with his politics. It follows a young and handsome sailor (Luca Marinelli) who dreams of becoming a writer, and an important one at that. He saves a rich kid (Giustiniano Alpi) from a beating and is rewarded with a glimpse into his family’s life and a fleeting, hesitant courtship from the boy’s sister Elena (Jessica Cressy). She loves Martin but doesn’t know how to see him as an equal, an idea that horrifies her parents who think of the impoverished Martin as a brutish dimwit unworthy of their daughter. Well you know what they say about the best revenge. 

“Martin Eden” is directed by Pietro Marcello, whose fortunes have been confined to Europe until now. His new film will likely become a minor sensation because of the striking features and brooding charisma of Marinelli and because of the grammatical risks taken to enliven and Italianize London’s novel. He incorporates what has to be at least 20 minutes worth of historical footage and clips of other movies into the background of his work, but in short bursts throughout the film. He’s building Eden’s world of a fictionalized historical Italy by showing what someone back then (whenever then is, the film’s exact time is quite obviously a concoction) would have seen through the eyes of people who actually saw it. In one sense you kind of get the feeling he’s ironically using the Italian fascist’s preferred art forms (futurism and realism) ironically to build a case for the Mussolinian individual as a sham, and indeed fame does nothing good for Martin. 

In that sense I rather liked the film, but sitting through it wasn’t always so rewarding. Marcello never quite figures out which parts of London’s novel need to stay and go and the obviousness of its "rich woman, poor man" narrative of cruelty and broken expectations cannot in good faith be presented as if we don’t know the beats. The story goes one of two places and getting there is frequently frustrating as we watch Martin unprepared for the next thing the story will do to him that we can smell a mile off. Setting a classic novel in a concrete cultural bedrock but a made-up time seems to obfuscate the need for the framework in the first place. It’s a handsome film with good intentions, but it would have been wiser to abandon London’s structure and give in fully to the director's considerably stylistic whims.

Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.

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