Andrea Arnold: Cow (2021) | featured image
Cow (2021) | Photo credit: Kate Kirkwood, courtesy of IFC

Director Andrea Arnold on Making ‘Cow’ and the Sensual in Cinema

Director Andrea Arnold talks with PopMatters about sensing the feelings of Luma, a dairy cow, in her documentary feature debut, Cow.

Andrea Arnold
8 April 2022 (US)

British director Andrea Arnold‘s Cow (2021), her first feature documentary, observes the life of an English dairy cow named Luma, through milking, mating, and birthing. In showing the challenging life for cows on an English cattle farm, Arnold offers her audience a privileged opportunity to reconnect with nature. The sparse dialogue requires the audience to not only passively watch, but also sensually engage with the images.

A hypnotic and soothing piece of filmmaking, Arnold offers escapism from the human jungle, where we are keenly aware of our life stories. These human preoccupations are absent as we immerse ourselves in Luma’s routine, stirring existential questions about our chaotic lives. We’re confronted by emotions when watching Luma, but are these a projection of our own fears and feelings of dissatisfaction about the monotony of our own lives? Are we different from Luma, or are our daily routines with limited independence to live our lives as we aspire to similar to a dairy cow’s experience? If it’s Arnold’s intention to reconnect us with nature, to experience a prey animal’s point-of-view, is this possible?

Arnold’s previous films include the Glasgow set, Red Road (2006), about a CCTV operator who confronts a man from her past, and American Honey (2016), which follows a group of young misfits across the American Midwest. In conversation with PopMatters, Arnold discusses her “method” approach to directing, and her need to feel an emotional connection to tell a story.

As humans, we are sensitive to perception – how we perceive ourselves, and how we’re perceived by others. How do you compare your self-awareness as a filmmaker on Cow, to your previous films?

People ask, “Can you come and do a masterclass?” I think, ‘Why are you asking me? I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Every time you make a film it feels like a new beginning, and every film is like a new land to discover.

I’m slow at making films and I honestly feel as much of a beginner now as I ever did. Having said that, I’ll work on a film or a series and realise that I can feel comfortable. If I go to direct American TV, I’ll feel comfortable on set with the actors and the situation. I’ll feel comfortable trying to solve all of the daily challenges, whereas, if I’d gone to work on something like that at the beginning of my career, I’d have been terrified.

This brings to mind how don’t always feel our age – we can be older, and still feel like a younger version of ourselves.

It’s great to feel you’re still young. The challenge of life is acting responsible and mature in some situations, then in others acting like a complete kid, and having the confidence to do that.

Between adolescence and adulthood, there’s a period when we’re more malleable. Is it helpful for storytellers to retain a youthful spirit and perspective that’s connected to this phase?

I describe myself as a “method director”. When I was making American Honey, I started dressing like a cowgirl, and I took lots of road trips across middle America. If I’m working with kids or younger people, I get wrapped up in who they are. You have to tap into whatever it is you’re doing – you have to feel it. Thinking about those kids in American Honey, I definitely felt like I was one of them – I had to tap into that side of myself.

I’ve done that with every film [related to the subjects] and I feel [that relating] is an important part of my process because it’s about getting that feeling under your skin first, and getting a sense of your subject. Filmmaking is more than about what’s going on [inside and outside your subject] – it’s like a sensual relationship.

I can’t make anything if I don’t feel an emotional connection. I couldn’t, or, I wouldn’t want to, and I wouldn’t even begin that journey.

When I made Red Road, I would go up to the flats and walk about, and be there on my own at night. I’d hang out and talk to people, go to the pub and the other places everyone went.

I have a slight documentary element to what I do. It’s a mix of fiction, and as I’m writing, if I get to know the places and the people, it all starts to feed into what I’m doing. I feel like I’m living it a bit. I can’t describe it, but I can’t do it without that connection.

Alongside your feature films, Cow could be seen as an outlier. Stories, however, are about observing people, and so Cow is not the outlier it might seem.

Cow is part of everything that I’ve done. It’s very much along the same lines. It sounds like a cliché, and I don’t mean that. […] It doesn’t feel unrelated, and if you watch my first short, Milk (1998), you’ll see the connection.

We’re keenly aware of our life stories, and children and adolescents are taught how one’s life should unfold, cultivating expectations. There’s a joy felt while following Luma around, because the human preoccupations are absent. Cow is a therapeutic film, allowing the audience to lose themselves in the moment.

This is part of a bigger question because we are given so many narratives about life and how it should be. In a lot of fiction, you are given everything wrapped up. Fiction is making sense out of the chaos, but it’s sometimes nice to see the chaos.

What you’re saying is important and because there’s more content, it’s hard to keep up with everything. There needs to be a handful of films and a few good TV series, but now there are hundreds of everything. It’s almost like: This is how it has to be. This is what we’re presenting to you. This is what you should think. Here it is.

I was talking earlier about how much I love David Lynch because he’s his own person and he’s original. Maybe we’re getting less originality. We don’t see as many things that challenge us and ask us to think in different ways. It’s all slightly familiar, and I guess we can seek out whatever we like. There’s lots of art out there that could get us to think, but life is challenging. Sometimes people want to sit down and watch something that’s easy – maybe that’s a part of it.

I find Luma beautiful, and I love looking at her. I remember the moths in Wuthering Heights (2011) on the window. I could have filmed those moths for about an hour, watching them, and I’d have been quite happy because they were so beautiful the way they were fluttering about. I thought, ‘I don’t suppose anyone else is going to enjoy it if I just put the moths there for an hour.’ Even the shot of the moths was a bit too long. Everyone was telling me to cut it, but I said, “No, you’ve got to leave them; they’re beautiful.” [Laughs]

We’re cutting very fast [now in cinema] and we’re showing everyone how things should be. With CGI everything is possible. It makes everything boring because you know everything’s possible. It takes away some of what’s real.

Would you agree that Cow goes back to the early days of British documentary filmmaking, for example, Night Mail (Harry Watt and Basil Wright, 1936), with its appreciation for simplistic and informative filmmaking?

I didn’t deliberately go back to anything, but I’ve always liked the things that feel real and simple. I know on some level when you’re making a film, you’re directing someone’s consciousness. You’re always pulling people’s views into something that you want to show them. Within that, I try to show something I’ve found in a simple way.

Obviously, Luma’s situation is tough, but I believed in looking at her and trying to see how she was consciously feeling. I always believed it was enough because I can get myself wrapped up in things and watch them for a long time. I believed in trying to do this. I didn’t know if it would work, but people have connected with it. For some people, it works, but not for everyone – no film can achieve that.

Cow is released in US theatres and On Demand today, 8 April 2022, by IFCFilms