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'Cow' is a documentary that raises many questions

Close-up photo of a dairy cow's face
Courtesy of IFC Films
Luma in 'Cow' directed by Andrea Arnold.

Just as the title suggests, the documentary film Cow spends about 90 minutes in the company of a dairy cow on a large farm in England. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at CU Denver, says the picture brings up many questions.

Director Andrea Arnold is something of a master of brief titles. She called her first three shorts Milk, Dog and Wasp. She continues that terse string with her latest movie, Cow, which happens to be a pretty blunt film also, although it opens with homey closeups of a cow called Luma.

When Luma has a calf, the camera is right in the thick of things as she licks mucous off the calf still lying in the straw. It feels homey and full of mother-child love. When the calf stands for the first time, your heart goes out to this gentle, graceful pair.

And then there’s a quick glimpse of a human figure and it feels like the moment when Bambi’s mother warns that, “Man is in the forest.” In a flash, that man leads the cow away from her calf and she bellows.

The crux of the picture is right here, with the fundamental question of whether cows or other non-human beings have feelings like ours. Does this cow on a British dairy farm have feelings? Does she have an emotional life complex enough for her to bemoan the loss of her child?

Director Andrea Arnold seems pretty sure that cows feel the loss of a child. When the movie cuts between Luma and her now separated calf, their sounds seem like each is desperate for the other. You feel intimate with them. When Luma’s eyes move about, when you see her eyelashes from just inches away —surely, in their bovine way, these beings feel love, attachment and emotional pain. When her calf is gone, Luma stands still among other adult cows as they eat. Has sadness taken her appetite?

At least on this farm, the human beings manhandle the cows. The cows live in barns surrounded by metal bars and gates, stanchions and plenty of muck. Farmhands push and pull the cows around the barn, hold their heads tight to give them shots, and with the young ones, they burn the spots where horns would otherwise appear. They set mechanical milkers on the cows' udders.

When Luma’s calf moves away from the horn-burning, some may see an animal in pain looking for solace and relief. Farm workers apparently do not see that. It's all mechanical procedure: another machine pins the cow to the sides and tilts so a farmhand can scrape her hooves. When the cow is righted, she's left to figure out how to extricate herself.

The cows are simultaneously beings in the world and machines that provide milk and calves to then grow up to provide milk and meat. They're natural beings, but they're also cogs in the machine of the dairy business run by people. But in the film Cow, the conversation of the people is mostly low inarticulate rumble, while the mooing of the cows grows progressively articulate. Before the cows get an outing to a meadow outside their barn, they rise in expectation to peer over the gate. Their mooing changes tone, and when the gate opens, the cows burst out. They run and cavort in the grass. I don't speak the language of dairy cows, but they sure sound excited.

Cow is not a movie in a hurry. It studies the pronounced pin bones of Luma's rear, and how they move. The picture gazes on Luma's face and the small moves of her enormous head as she keeps a watchful eye on the world she inhabits, even if it's mostly just the crowded barn. We connect with her and feel for Luma and her barn mates. The movie takes the time to contemplate her stillness.

The deeper you allow the film "Cow" to take you, the more poignant are the ethics of what we do to living beings to get our food. This is no family farm with Elsie enjoying her pasture. It's a factory.

Cheese will never taste the same.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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