After three straight episodes in the barrios and freeways of L.A., Sean and Cody sample some slow living in the early 19th century Pacific Northwest as they examine this quirky and unusual 2020 indie Western. In First Cow, frontier cook Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) gets fired and chased through the forest by his former employers, and is fortunate to hook up with Chinese immigrant King-Lu (Orion Lee) who’s similarly down on his luck. When they spot a single cow wandering through the Oregon forest they hatch a scheme to milk it and use the dairy to make tasty oily cakes to sell at the local trading post. Unfortunately their best customer, the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), is also the owner of the cow. Environmental issues discussed include the role of cows and cattle in European settlement of the West, how cattle was a harbinger of colonialism, and the environmental history of Sauvie Island, Oregon where the movie was filmed and presumably takes place.
Why would a single cow be such a valuable resource in Oregon Territory in 1820? Who owned Oregon Territory at that time anyway, and why is it so hard to tell? Why did a British Navy captain deliberately import cows into Hawaii in 1792, and why was the King of Hawaii so jazzed about the arrangement? What’s “cattle colonialism”? How come Westerns usually focus on the stories of white men with guns “taming” the West, and how does this film present a different story? Why would this movie make John Wayne really, really mad? Which racist trope which has appeared in numerous other Green Screen films is refreshingly absent from this one? How do you pronounce “clafoutis”? How about “Auberjonois”? Which That Guy in this film is the son of another That Guy who appeared in a previous film profiled on the podcast? Why does Amazon think anyone in their right mind would watch reruns of Murder, She Wrote with commercials? All these questions and more are ready for milking in this decidedly bovine episode of Green Screen.
Original 2020 trailer for First Cow.
The title creature makes its first appearance in First Cow. This was definitely filmed on Sauvie Island in Oregon. Note also the cedar jackets (the Native American girl is wearing one) which are discussed in the episode.
Note: because First Cow is a new movie currently available on streaming services, clips from it on YouTube are much harder to find than with older films.
Additional Materials About This Episode:
The History: Cows, Colonialism, San Francisco etc.
Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of Hawaii by John Ryan Fischer (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), Amazon link:
Sean Munger’s podcast interview with Dr. John Ryan Fischer about Cattle Colonialism, on the New Books Network podcast, Nov. 13, 2017:
“The History of San Francisco: From the 1820s to the Gold Rush,” Museum of the City of San Francisco:
Information on the Bybee-Howell House (the “Chief Factor’s house” in the film), from Sauvie Island Community Association:
Poster for Sean’s “The Pacific as Crossroads” lecture which was given twice in 2018 and 2019. This episode draws on some of the material from that talk.
Geography and Locations
The Bybee-Howell House on Sauvie Island, Portland, Oregon. Here is the link to the location on Google Maps.
Near Chapman Landing on Sauvie Island. Here is the link to the Google Maps location. This is near several places where First Cow was filmed, and presumably takes place.
The “Oily Cakes”
The Film Cactus YouTube channel shows us how to make the “oily cakes” featured in the film.
Thomas Flight’s illuminating video essay on the editing of First Cow.
Director Kelly Reichardt discusses First Cow at the New York Film Festival. She expresses some of the same thoughts on the genre of the Western as are discussed in this episode.
This clip from Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) shows a bit of the style of the film. In the episode, we draw comparisons between this film and First Cow.
Next Movie Up: 55 Days at Peking (1963)