With The Moo Man, co-directors Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier etch out a fond, observant documentary portrait of Steven Hook, amiable second-generation proprietor of Hook & Sons raw organic milk producers in Sussex, England. The issue of raw organic milk versus pasteurized milk is a sticky one amid the bureaucracy of the UK judicial system, but this isn't an issue picture as one might expect from the subject; instead, Heathcote and Bachelier strategically push that subtext into the background and bring into the foreground one of the most compelling human stories among recent documentaries. What a glorious piece of filmmaking this is. As Nicolas Philibert did in his 2002 masterpiece To Be and to Have, Heathcote and Bachelier prove the old adage that some lives which seem woefully banal and a-cinematic on the surface possess within them the most splendid nuances and gradations that need only to be drawn out and explored with a knowing, empathetic hand. Utilizing a steady, calculated semiotic pace that draws us in and holds us rapt, the directors succeed at unifying us not only with the measured clip of farm life but with its many inherent temperaments. From the opening frames, they give us the screen time and cinematographic intimacy necessary to get to know the individual cows, who have human names and personalities laden with the most fantastic idiosyncracies. Accodingly, we experience the whole spectrum of relationships between Stephen and the animals, and we begin to care about several of the bovines on a strikingly personal level - so much that when a potential tragedy finally arises and threatens to impact one of the cows, the degree of emotional investment that we feel is surprising.The documentary is also remarkable for the asceticism of the day to day life that it depicts. So many nonfiction films deal in the spectacular that it can be revelatory to witness such events as an English farmer driving his tractor through the heath, a man sitting down for a simple dinner of spaghetti bolognese and wine, a road trip to an English seaside town, and an afternoon of cattle herding; we get all of this and so much more. Ingeniously, Heathcote and Bachelier present these developments with such matter of factness that the scenes come across as exponentially more magnetic than they would otherwise be. The film reaches an unforeseen plateau when it shows us - on two separate occasions - one of the most typical agrarian occurrences, but one that seems magical and even otherworldly to unfamiliar eyes: a newborn calf emerging from its mother's womb. In these instances, we're hit with immediate, firsthand exposure to the cycle of life, via indelibly trenchant images. In the final analysis, the Moo Man emerges as one of those rare films that cuts through the pretense of movie formula and enables us to see the world in a new way. It has the same sort of mass audience appeal that March of the Penguins did, but without the preciousness or contrivances that weighed that picture down. Man is built, instead, on a bedrock of sincerity, earnestness and untempered human feeling that cannot possibly leave one unmoved.
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