October 2, 2020

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An early 1800’s settlement in Oregon where, according to one character, “History is not here yet”, offers the opportunity to witness the dawning of institutions. It may also have something to say about our present state of affairs.

An American drama released in 2019- 2020, from director Kelly Reichardt. Has been presented in several film festivals in 2019-2020, with very positive reviews.


(This is a spoiler alert: do not read this section if you wish to follow the plot only at the screening of the film).

Otis “Cookie” Figowitz is a traveling cook for a group of rough fur traders in the Oregon of the early 1800’s. Cashing his last paycheck from the group, he temporarily establishes himself in a fur and trade settlement, where he meets King-Lu, a Chinese immigrant fleeing from retribution following a murder he committed against a Russian immigrant.

Cookie and King-Lu establish in the settlement a business of sorts, based on cookies and biscuits, where the “secret ingredient” comes from the milk they steal from Mr. Factor’s cow, the first and only cow of the settlement. Mr. Factor is a British born official with the only proper house of the settlement.

Their scheme being discovered, Cookie and King-Lu flee. While fleeing, they fall asleep in a meadow, and we learn from the opening scene of the film, when their skeleton is found in today’s Oregon, that they had been reached and executed for their illicit business plan.


There are many angles to this film.

One of them is that the film is about friendship and the bonding that develops between the two unlikely business partners in crime. The film opens on William Blake’s quote on man and friendship.

Another angle concerns the conditions of the first settlements of the Oregon Territory of the early 1800’s.

In an interview with The Lincoln Center’s Dennis Lim, director Kelly Reichardt commented on her film, by pointing out that First Cow concerns several themes, such as immigration, the beaver trade in the West, a period that is earlier than the pioneer days. Under the suggestion of the interviewer, Dennis Lim, she agrees that it may also concern the theme of early capitalism, although she says she usually prefers to avoid such large and charged topics.

Director Reichardt may be putting us on the road of a more satisfying interpretation when, during that same interview, she points out that the film, at least partly, concerns a period where there were no rules yet, when things were “unformed”, when “History was not here yet”.

Drawing from those last remarks from the film’s director, and drawing also from the film itself, First Cow would appear to be a sort of novel on the birth of institutions.

All institutions begin with a kind of pre-existing condition of primitive chaos, much like the conditions of the Oregon settlement. Much of the interaction between individuals is characterized by theft, menace, fear, revenge and physical punishment, and sometimes murder. Even the public figures of authority, the British born Mr. Factor and the commanding navy officer, see much of the necessary social regulation settled by physical punishment, not controlled by independent courts.

The film is about a time when there were no developed rules yet. More specifically, it is about the primitive conditions prior to the establishment of real, institutional rules. Those primitive conditions were both evidence of the necessity of rules, but they also constituted some of the basic ingredients for the establishment of rules and institutions.

Indeed, the establishment of better institutions and rules could not ignore pre-existing primitive practices and habits.

And so, even in our modern institutions, there are remnants of the way the Oregon Territory settled grievances, with some unavoidable elements of fear, revenge, and punishment.

Our institutions, even our most advanced ones, are a mixed bag of primitive justice, tempered by more subtle and complex interactions, partly inspired by influence from outside models ( in this film, by the presence of Mr. Factor, always mindful of how things were done in Britain where he was born).


What does First Cow tell us about our present-day institutions? The Shrink’s basic view is that all films are tied to the present, even though they are set in the future or the past. What does this tell us about the film’s involvement in the present?

A good portion of our present-day economic institutions concern the production and trade of physical goods, those that are slowly and calmly carried, in the film, in modern-day barges along the Columbia River. The institutions of trade for those types of production and interactions are quite mature and nowhere near the primitive ways of the Oregon Territory of the nineteenth century.

But, is that also the case for all our social and economic interactions, today? Are there not areas of our social and economic life still primitively or too loosely regulated?

Two areas of activity come to mind.

The first concerns the world of finance, and international finance especially. These interactions concern immaterial elements, more difficult to track down, and very different from the hardware transactions of the physical world. The financial mess of 20070-2008, with governments obliged to pick up the pieces, leads us to believe that this part of our economy has some resemblances with the Oregon Territory’s rules for physical goods of the early 1880’s.

The second area of insufficient institutionalization concerns the Wild West of the Internet and social media. Obviously, this area of activity is doing a lot of good, but also a lot of damage. It is poorly regulated, in fact essentially not at all. It is at a primitive phase of institutionalization, much like the settlement in First Cow.

The Movie Shrink does not believe that the film has this implicit message. He only suggests that the film speaks of the present while describing the past.