Cow, the new film by Andrea Arnold, is unlike her previous animal titles. ‘Dog’, ‘Wasp’ and Fish Tank featured animals as metaphor or plot point in a story focused on human characters who struggle with interpersonal relationships in a British council estate setting. Ostensibly, Cow bucks the trend with its focus on a single dairy cow. The film is billed as a documentary, which further distinguishes it from the narrative pattern of oppressed woman seeking solace in romance. However, looking closely at the construction of its scenes, it would appear that Cow merely follows this narrative structure on an anthropomorphic plane. What are the political implications of coercing these images of a cow into such familiar cinematic shapes?
To start, the film’s emphasis on a single hero’s journey can prevent the audience from looking at aspects of the hero’s wider context. The beginning of Cow is the most harrowing part, in which we see our dairy cow protagonist giving birth to a calf, from whom she is very soon separated. The cow licks her newborn calf clean, and the choice of focusing on an individual cow and calf here is a strength. While the excessive licking is somewhat alien, it remains a legible sign of maternal affection. There are close shots of their eyes, their heads. Then, the camera follows the mother cow as she is herded away, down a narrow metal passageway, to her next enclosure. For one long take, the cow stares at the cameraperson and moos. She pauses, and moos again. She is agitated, it seems like she is trying to express something. Coming direct after the separation from her calf, the overriding sense here is the cow’s voiceless impotence. When she joins other cows in the barn, rather than expressing how her oppression is shared across all her fellow cows, the camera remains very close to this one – marking her out as different and special.
A character partly exists in order to guide the audience through the situations with which they are asked to identify. Therefore, the character is always mediated, framed, condensed. Very early on, the viewer is gripped by the mechanised, industrial oppression of this cow and, secondarily, her calf. The cow is rendered ‘identifiable’ so that the audience can identify with her experience. While this is a sign of a domineering hand of characterisation, it is also a useful way to evoke pathos in the audience. Pathos evoked, the film is endowed with a responsibility to take that somewhere.
Indignation at the situation carries through the first half of the film, where we see the calf’s nascent horns burned off its head, and the mother cow’s internment in a cold, mechanical milking apparatus. Then, however, the film veers into absurdly familiar territory. The cow is led to another enclosure. A song begins to play – ‘Tyrant’ by Kali Uchis ft. Jorja Smith. A bull is led in and starts smelling the cow. The cow walks away from the bull, to the closed gate. Not exactly embracing his advances, and yet the music becomes more exciting, and then, in a bizarre coincidence, we see fireworks outside in the background. While the cow studiously looks away from the bull, who licks her and then mounts her, we hear inserted sound effects of the fireworks whistle and spark, and Kali Uchis sings “I don’t wanna come down, keep spinning me round and round and round and round.” The film cuts to actual fireworks, until the song ends. The bull and cow stand together. Postcoital tenderness and telepathic pillow talk, surely.
In 1938, Bertolt Brecht wrote: ‘The crude aesthetic thesis that emotions can only be stimulated by means of empathy is wrong.'Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting that Produces a Verfremdung Effect’, 1940, in Silberman et. al, eds, Brecht on Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2015) This scene guides the audience from empathic outrage at the conditions of agribusiness to empathising with a farcical portrait of romantic and sexual fulfilment. The choice to use pseudo-diegetic sound, as if the music plays from a radio in the barn, as well as the cutaway to fireworks, portray this forced copulation as conforming to Western ideas of romance. The lack of a voiceover allows these editorial decisions to shape the audience’s understanding of events. The lyrics of ‘Tyrant’ ask ‘Wanna seize the throne? / but what would you do with all that control?’ The fact is, neither the bull nor the cow have a modicum of control in this situation. Every year, each cow must get impregnated and birth a calf, which can then be sold for a profit. Not a word of this context is breathed in the film. Instead, we are led to enjoy the weird ‘love life’ of our cow heroine. This anthropomorphic scene may be compensation for Arnold’s big ask: to identify with an animal for 90 minutes without human voiceover. However, it is at the expense of truthfully portraying the cow’s lack of choice in the matter. Through techniques used to evoke empathy, the audience’s emotions are stimulated into feeling for a falsehood of consent.
Identification with something is ‘to associate closely or completely’ with it. In the scene just described, Cow‘s audience is guided into identifying with passivity in the face of oppression. Given the focus on one cow, who was dead by the time Cow hit cinemas, the audience can only be passive in relation to the events onscreen. In scenes like this, the subjection of animals to the strictures of their pens is not unlike the subjection of cinema-goers to the pre-defined film they’ve paid to see. Our agency is temporarily eliminated, which can be part of the pleasure of cinema. It’s relaxing to sit back and trust in the silver screen, but this set-up does not encourage a critical attention to what it is we are led to relate with. (Of course, this doesn’t prohibit us paying attention to the film’s workings regardless.)
Both when audiences leave themselves to identify with a character, and when a character’s identity is partially captured by a film, things get lost. Adorno wrote that ‘objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder,’ and films inevitably present a selective vision of their subject, albeit with varying degrees of complexity.Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1973) p.5 With Cow‘s overt attempts to make a cow relatable, not only do we briefly lose our feelings of agency while watching the cow’s enforced passivity, but the cow loses the wider context of her life. Notwithstanding the range of perspectives which can be expressed in films of multiple characters, the direction a film takes with its protagonist reveals the aspect of the audience in which it seeks emotional resonance. This aspect is augmented by watching the film, leading the audience to feel it in ourselves more strongly. One aspect with which Cow seeks to resonate is sadness at a feeling of entrapment – a feeling which presumably bridges the gap between humans and animals.
When The Guardian asked Arnold why she made this film, she said ‘I wanted to show a non-human consciousness.’Simon Hattenstone, ‘Interview: ‘I kept saying – don’t worry Luma, we see you’: Andrea Arnold on her four years filming a cow’ in The Guardian, 6.01.2022, … Continue reading The BFI asked: ‘How does moulding a piece of nonfiction in your own vision compare to moulding a fiction film?’ Arnold’s response was: ‘It doesn’t feel massively different to me. You’re always trying to shape something and make sense of it.’Brogan Morris, ‘Interview: Andrea Arnold on Cow’ in BFI, 12.01.2022, https://www.bfi.org.uk/interviews/andrea-arnold-cow But sense is made of the nonhuman via familiar, fictional human shapes. By endowing the cow with a humanistic personality, Cow lets the audience empathise with the animal, rather than viewing her, for example, through her economic status as value-producing commodity. Despite this empathy, the film is silent on the socio-economic context that causes the cow to live as a value-producing commodity. Following Brecht’s conclusions on thinking feelings, a nod toward that context could lift us from dull pain at this cow’s pain, to more thoughtful emotions regarding her wider situation.
Cow contains no close ups on the faces of its human farmers, much less does it acknowledge any aspect of the capitalist infrastructure that necessitates turning cows into cashcows. It steers clear of the farmers’ labour conditions, and evades both the booming profits and environmental impact of dairy cows’ milk and progeny. In this way, Cow resembles the ‘nonhuman turn’ in academic philosophy, in which the most political statement is that we humans should de-center ourselves from our conception of the natural world. Although it is a human who shoots the cow near the film’s end, it is the cow’s corpse upon whom light flares, implying some kind of spiritual ascendance. A happy coincidence of the non-human turn is that its emphasis on the agency of non-humans absolves us trigger-happy humans of any primary responsibility. We are but equally weighted atoms amid the web of interconnected, desiring matter. We embody social relations between things.
A paradox occurs when this point is made, because to let the nonhuman speak for itself, requires the human to have extra-human receptivity to the unpredictable way in which it might speak. Thus, it ignores the extent to which the human’s potential receptivity is governed by the multiple ideologies contained within human culture. It risks misreading or, more often, inventing the wishes of other species – as seen in the imposition of fireworks into the cow’s romantic flight of fancy. As critics such as Andreas Malm and SunYoung Ahn have pointed out, it also shies away from the fact that most nonhuman matter is ushered into its present state due to human activity.cf. Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm (Verso, 2020) and SunYoung Ahn, ‘Magic, Necromancy, and the Nonhuman Turn’ in Monthly Review, 1.02.2022, … Continue reading To de-emphasise the role of humans is to de-historicise the context of nonhumans. This renders their present state inexplicable.
Arnold ‘wanted to show a non-human consciousness’, and perhaps this is why the film fails to deal with the wider historical causes of this cow’s internment – human capitalist activity. On the ‘non-human turn’, SunYoung Ahn writes:
Discussions that overlook the reality of this economic and historical mediation obscure capitalist reality and cast a romantic hue over it, elevating the nonhuman into something wondrously agential and robust. The nonhuman turn allows the “whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy” to shroud human labor as well as disguise the nonhuman’s impoverished status with only the market price to explain itself.Ahn, ‘Magic’
By romanticising the cow and masking her position in the market, Arnold allows the audience to empathise with her as a conventionally emoting, cinematic subject. However, this is not out of a posthuman respect for the cow’s difference – in fact it portrays her as an oppressed, romantic hero similar to the desperately lonely single mother in ‘Wasp’. The film’s nonhuman focus allows the audience to sink into the film even more completely, because there’s no ‘society’ in there, and no link to our own societal role. Arnold is good at recognising the emotional difficulty of situations, and she skilfully uses this to evoke empathy in the audience. However, she pursues empathy to the exclusion of systemic critique, and thus the situations we are led to feel for are reified as situations which we are powerless to change.
The film ends on a shot of the calf, older now, no longer a calf, running down a road being herded by some humans back in the distance. What is at stake here is the audience’s emotional and intellectual state at the film’s close. The humans are small in the frame, the calf is in close up. The song is ‘Milk’ by Garbage, and as the credits start to roll, the song goes:
I am weak
But I am strong
I can use my tears to
Bring you home
The final words of the film endorse the efficacy of emotions in making change happen. When the singing ‘I’ is identified with the calf, and, there being only two characters in the film, the ‘you’ is likely to be read as its mother, the paradox of the film’s emotive angle is explicit. The mother cow is dead now and there’s no bringing her home. The futility of the song’s sentimentality is there if you think about it, but it’s more likely that your tears prohibit your thinking. One could also read the ‘I’ as the voice of the film’s director, justifying her choice to bring us on this emotive journey. The film, without a voiceover, does not commit to any political point other than the emotional tugs of a lonely mother and calf, nor does it call into question why their situation is like this. Perhaps the filmmakers felt the context was obvious, and that sorrow is what’s needed in public attitudes to agribusiness.
When asked whether the unsustainability of the food industry was part of her motivation for making Cow, Arnold said: ‘the only way to change those things is for the real big decision-makers to change.’Rory O’Connor, ‘Andrea Arnold on Capturing Cow, Bovine Beauty, and the Brutality of Nature’ in The Film Stage, 25.07.2021, … Continue reading However, because her lens never alights on these real big decision-makers, they are free to continue creating conditions of misery for animals. One wonders, if the director holds this viewpoint, whether her film even sought to change things. Regardless, the nonhuman consciousness can be enjoyed in its emotional journeyings, while the human culture which created it can look on without responsibility. For all its omissions, Cow remains a poignant story of loss and longing. I would add to its roster of losses a painful lack of contextual inquiry which could aid us in changing the system which created this sad cow.
|↑1||Bertolt Brecht, ‘Short Description of a New Technique of Acting that Produces a Verfremdung Effect’, 1940, in Silberman et. al, eds, Brecht on Theatre (Bloomsbury, 2015)|
|↑2||Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1973) p.5|
|↑3||Simon Hattenstone, ‘Interview: ‘I kept saying – don’t worry Luma, we see you’: Andrea Arnold on her four years filming a cow’ in The Guardian, 6.01.2022, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jan/06/i-kept-saying-dont-worry-luma-we-see-you-andrea-arnold-on-her-four-years-filming-a-cow|
|↑4||Brogan Morris, ‘Interview: Andrea Arnold on Cow’ in BFI, 12.01.2022, https://www.bfi.org.uk/interviews/andrea-arnold-cow|
|↑5||cf. Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm (Verso, 2020) and SunYoung Ahn, ‘Magic, Necromancy, and the Nonhuman Turn’ in Monthly Review, 1.02.2022, https://monthlyreview.org/2022/02/01/magic-necromancy-and-the-nonhuman-turn/|
|↑7||Rory O’Connor, ‘Andrea Arnold on Capturing Cow, Bovine Beauty, and the Brutality of Nature’ in The Film Stage, 25.07.2021, https://thefilmstage.com/andrea-arnold-on-capturing-cow-bovine-beauty-and-the-brutality-of-nature/|