Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2021

Minari; First Cow

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

This year various professional film associations, including my own, will have to reckon with the absence of major Hollywood studio product at their yearly awards meeting. The pandemic cleared the table of films that admittedly are of little interest to me but far more to my colleagues in NYFCO who work for commercial outlets rather than a radical magazine like CounterPunch.

“Tenet” was the only traditional big-budget blockbuster opening in theaters. It cost $200 million to make but ended up $50 million in the red. “Tenet”, however, is not the typical Academy Awards darling. Although Christopher Nolan is considered some kind of genius (except by me), most film groups are looking for something less geared to a juvenile audience. For example, “Green Book” got an Oscar last year depicting Black pianist Don Shirley’s reliance on a white chauffeur to help him circumnavigate the Deep South’s racist exclusionary practices. A very high-minded if patronizing film.

This year indie films are getting the kind of attention they’ve never had before. Yesterday I wrote about “Nomadland” that is 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, earning over-the-top praise. Peter Travers, who is one of the worst purveyors of such inflated reviews, described it as a “wondrous work of art (Oscar, please)” that “joins with a never-better Frances McDormand and a cast of real-life nomads to capture what inspires the human urge to roam. It’s a new American classic.” I found it to be a humdrum account of old folks traveling around the country in vans and trailers in search of low-paying jobs to help supplement meager Social Security benefits.

After “Nomadland”, I saw another couple of indie films that have also received rave reviews and that are inside-track favorites for various awards ceremonies approaching nigh. Like “Nomadland”, “First Cow” is 97 percent Fresh. It is also brimming with indie cred. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, who makes films utterly devoid of Hollywood tropes, it is about the bromance between a Jewish and Chinese man in 1820 in the backwoods of Oregon. The two come together in a money-making scheme. Each night they surreptitiously milk a cow belonging to a rich Englishman to use for deep-fried biscuits sold to the locals. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is even more highly rated, 100 percent Fresh. Although it is a Korean-language film, it is much more about the American experience and even overlapping thematically with “First Cow”. Steven Yeun, of “Walking Dead” fame, plays a Korean immigrant with a wife and two children who buys land in Arkansas in the 80s in order to grow crops targeting the Korean grocery marketplace. Luckily for them, the locals welcome them in, especially since they are Church-going Christians.

Distributed by the Indie-oriented A24, both films depict immigrants scrambling to make it in the USA. Reichardt’s film is much more of a critique of the capitalist system even though the terrain it occupies is so remote from what we’ve grown to expect from classics like “Heaven’s Gate” (yes, you heard that right.) This is not about greedy ranchers trampling poor farmers underfoot. Indeed, some might walk away feeling that the bromance was the real story, not desperate men trying to figure out a way to survive sans property.

“Minari” is a bit of a Rorschach test. Some will see it as a tribute to the plucky Koreans who came to the USA to make it as small proprietors against all odds. For example, I received an email today from A24 tying a film screening to Korean American Day. It contained these words from Abraham Kim, the Executive Director of the Council of Korean Americans:

We celebrate the nearly 120-year history of Korean Americans in the U.S. and our community’s invaluable contributions to this country’s innovative economy, rich culture, and robust democracy. The Korean American immigrant story is one of hard work, resilience, and hope for the future. On this Korean American Day, we are honored to commemorate the values, the sacrifice, and the vision of this dynamic group.

Some reviewers saw “Minari” as a cautionary tale. While not using the word “capitalist”, they considered Steven Yeun’s character as someone willing to sacrifice his family for the sake of making it as a businessman. Slant Magazine, one of the more sophisticated in the world of film reviews, sums up the film’s contradictions:

This orderliness of plot somewhat undermines the sense that the family is steeped in a truly messy situation. It also foregrounds the way that Minari fits into familiar structures—that it’s not aiming to do much more than give a specifically Korean American spin to a more or less standard cultural narrative about the struggle against the land to make oneself anew in America. Perhaps aptly, there’s something Reagan-esque about the ideals of an individualist America that underlie the story.

I don’t blame director Lee Isaac Chung for wanting to make a semi-autobiographical film. My problem is with making such a film that is so determined to leave out any hint that immigrants are being victimized so grievously in the recent past. The story of immigrants making it (it is left open to question whether they do in “Minari”) in the USA is burdened today by the state’s willingness to break families apart. Their only crime is making the same sacrifices as those of the family in “Minari”. The Arkansas country folk bend over backwards to welcome the family but this is a state that elected Tom Cotton to the Senate, a MAGA-type politician who backed Trump’s decision to ban Muslims from the USA. Is it possible that his views represent an Arkansas that abandoned the erstwhile friendliness to immigrants depicted in “Minari”? I tend to doubt it.

As for “First Cow”, the remoteness of the situation is far greater than that of “Minari”. The action takes place in a frontier village that seems as primitive as 8th century Lithuania. The idea that people line up for biscuits friend in oil as if they were manna from heaven does not seem plausible. The whole notion of “First Cow” is that such an animal was about as rare in Oregon in 1820 as a bear would be wandering around in Central Park today. I have no idea when the first cow arrived but neither does Kelly Reichardt apparently, according to Portland Magazine.

“When did the first cow get here? Who knows? And does it matter? Not really,” Reichardt says.

I have more of an interest in Reichardt’s career than the average film critic because she teaches film at Bard College. I thought her early films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” were very good but have gone downhill ever since. Like “First Cow”, her “Meek’s Cutoff”, also set in frontier Oregon, was shockingly ignorant about American history. About which I wrote:

When I learned that Kelly Reichardt had made a Western about a wagon train in Oregon in 1845 relying on the help of an Indian, I had high expectations. Her earlier films, also set in Oregon, were penetrating character studies about contemporary life. “Old Joy” was about two men bonding in a hot tub in a forest retreat with homoerotic overtones, but more generally about the regrets of unfulfilled dreams. “Wendy and Lucy“ was about the struggle of a homeless woman to keep hold of the thing that she loved above all, her pet dog.

Unfortunately, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a complete disaster, a pretentious, boring, and insufferably “arty” work that gives independent film a bad name. I suppose that when I learned beforehand that Paul Dano was part of the cast, I should have avoided it. For my money, Dano is the worst actor in Hollywood since William Shatner who at least had the saving grace of not taking himself too seriously. Dano, like Reichardt, thinks he is involved with making a Big Statement. It is enough to drive one to spend a full day watching Adam Sandler movies.

The Meek referred to in the title is Stephen Meek, a character in a ridiculous looking buckskin fringe outfit who has been asked to lead a small wagon train into Oregon along the famous Oregon Trail. Unlike Daniel Boone or any other legendary mountain man, Meek could not find his way out of Grand Central Station even if you drew a path in red paint along the floor for him.

1 Comment »

  1. Louis is in a groove here! Just some great lines. They had me laughing out loud. In opposition to a claim that Nomadland is a new American classic, Louis says, “I found it to be a humdrum account of old folks traveling around the country in vans and trailers in search of low-paying jobs to help supplement meager Social Security benefits.” And his comments on First Cow and Meek’s Cutoff might be even better. Great stuff. I do have to wonder how anyone could roam around this country, as those in Nomadland do, and appear oblivious to the horrors around them. And not be really pissed off about what they witness. As for those biscuits, they sound disgusting. They make those made by Ma Joad sound tasty.

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — January 13, 2021 @ 10:45 pm


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