by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
From Ida Tarbell’s exposé of Standard Oil, to Upton Sinclair’s critical exploration of the plight of packing house workers, to Ralph Naders’ blistering attack on automakers, America has a rich tradition of what has become called “muckraking.” Some will see Andrea Arnold’s documentary debut, the 2021 movie Cow as in that genre, but I would think that a mistake. It has a visceral punch and evokes a strong reaction, but it is not a protest film. It is a tour de force, however, on many levels. Just released to movie houses, I watched it on Amazon Prime.
Strikingly, there is almost no dialogue in this film. It is a biography of a cow, Luma, centered on the birth of two of her seven calves. We hear only scraps of conversation among the employees of the English dairy farm housing Luma. They address their bovine charges as “good girl,” and manage their comings and goings without the electric cattle prods seen in some settings. But Arnold gives us an unsparing, honest look at the muck and mud and blood of the setting.
We watch Luma’s strenuous birth labor, and the tug of war winching out of her calves. We see her placenta dangling afterwards. We watch her next impregnation, the climax of which, jarringly, is accompanied by a pictorial burst of fireworks.
Most viewers will resonate to Luma’s tender ministrations to her newborn calves, and be harmed by the offspring’s’ tottering responses and nuzzling of her mother. They will also feel stirred by Luma’s lowing when the calf and her mother are separated by the need for Luma to be returned to the cycle of artificial machine milking. That highlights one of the major contrasts of this documentary, that between living flesh and blood and the clangor and efficiency of machines on the other: incompatibles inextricably interwoven in Luma’s story and in human lives.
Another element of the film that seemed important was the British pop music soundtrack. It struck me at times like an ironic comment on the action. But I came to regret my lack of familiarity with that material.
An intriguing issue posed by this film is its documentary “fly on the wall” self-presentation. The dairy workers give no evidence of being aware of the process of filming, of interacting in any way with the filming crew. And yet the cameras and crew must have been making an impression on the workers, and, indeed, of influencing in some way their behavior.
As a biography of Luma it must end with her death, the details of which I will not reveal. There is, however, an afterword. We watch Luma’s second calf going down a path that will echo Luma’s.
Andrea Arnold’s first two feature films, Fish Tank and American Honey, earned awards at Cannes. Cow will further burnish her reputation.