'Peter and the Farm'
In Tony Stone's intimate and unvarnished portrayal of the life of a solitary Vermont farmer, 'Peter and the Farm', he reveals all the idyllic qualities of a rural New England landscape while simultaneously infusing the film with the often harsh realities associated with raising animals for their eventual journey to the farmer's market.
Directed by Tony Stone
Distribution Magnolia Pictures
Review by Chris Hartman
Stream it at Itunes, Amazon and Netflix.
“Art is never made when everything is fine. You have to start wondering, are you keeping it fucked up so you can keep doing art? I'm too aware of that.… 1998 — I know very well, that was the peak of this farm, and it's been in decay and decline ever since."
– Peter Dunning, Peter and the Farm
Peter Dunning, the protagonist of Tony Stone's Peter and the Farm, looks up a verdant hill at one of his cows hugging a barbed-wire fence, seemingly wishing to be on the other side, and remarks with a withering air of resignation, "I know you're unhappy. Everyone is." The 68 year-old Dunning possesses the grizzled, weather-beaten and snowy-bearded countenance of an Ernest Hemingway or a John Brown — raging against both what he feels are personal injustices and the decline of a philosophy of living, borne out of the 1960s counterculture, he can see inexorably changing for the worse.
Dunning, who has lived on this bucolic Vermont farmstead since 1978, is a self-described alcoholic who says he occasionally wakes up at night to have a drink to fend off the DTs. His farm’s cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, along with a loyal sheep dog, provide much of the companionship for this contemplative loner, who markets his organic wares at the local Brattleboro farmers' market. Stone, who spent upwards of 35 days over several months with a small film crew documenting his subject in his daily routine, reveals all the complexities and idiosyncrasies of Dunning — his beautiful paintings and pastels, his lilting if maudlin poetry, and his "back to the land" philosophy of life. But Stone also documents some of Dunning's more self-destructive impulses, such as suicidal thoughts, and repeated tailspins into self-loathing, self-pity and despair, ignited to even greater intensity by alcohol.
Tragedy and sadness have been a thread connecting much of Dunning's life. When he was very young, he was adopted by a foster family in New York City and was later told his mother had died, and his father was killed in an automobile accident. Yet he also made it clear that, after he moved to Vermont, there was a time when he, his wife Susan, her son Josh, and his son Jesse "made the farm hum. It was the most productive and happy time in my life."
Some time later, misfortune revisited Peter as his wife and children left him — due presumably to his drinking and bouts with depression. Dunning says at one point, "I could, in front of you, call all of my children and not one would pick up the phone… not one."
When he was just starting out after college, Dunning worked in a saw mill that cut railroad ties. He and his young wife had a vision of laboring half the year and spending the other half on art. But his life took a tragic turn when he had a horrific accident with a band saw that nearly severed his left hand, dramatically altering his life. "All of the sudden, you're in a hospital … you're somewhere you don't expect to be, and the entire direction of your existence has just made an enormous change."
At a particularly agonizing point in the film, after being thrown by a large sheep in his barn, Dunning remarks with palpable desperation, "I need to get out of here." He and the film crew then depart to a local bar. On the way, Dunning recalled he told Tony, when he first came to the farm, "Why don't you document my suicide?" After returning home, he rages in his barn while frantically sawing and stacking wood. "Ok, let's get honest … I care more about the farm than me." It's a raging, free form catharsis worthy of Shakespeare's Othello, whose wife Desdemona chides him, "I understand a fury in your words, but not the words." And when Dunning showed Tony his new 30.06 rifle, which he uses to patrol his property for coyotes, he seemed to be truly channeling Hemingway — “Paul (Dunning’s farmer friend) hides it when I get suicidal."
Dipping into some cider one night while chatting with Tony and his crew, he confessed to wanting the approval of his farmer neighbors more than anything else in the world —"art, poetry… whatever." Farming, for him, "was the only important thing to do, the only way to save the world… Do you want to save the world, or do you want to go down?"
In a particularly haunting sequence, Dunning proclaims, "I've spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me… I've become the farm." And in one of the free verse poems he recites near the film's conclusion, "This is a beautiful oasis, a paradise in the midst of ugliness. It's all I've ever wanted, more in fact… it's only cost four children, two wives and an inheritance, but the old man is slowing down and the weeds are speeding up. But what else, where else…?"
Tony Stone and Nathan Corbin's beautiful direction and photography (the ethereal panoramas of the countryside recall Hollywood epics shot in letterbox format), accompanied by an evocatively melancholic soundtrack, make the complexities of Dunning's character vivid and stirring. Stone, who became friendly with Dunning over a period of years of visiting him at the farmer's market, began the project in 2012. "Peter is about honesty and frankness. One farmer who saw it mentioned that the film was like holding up a mirror to himself."
Citing the hyper-drive pace of modern day existence, Stone added, "Life is so planned. Peter is the antithesis of that." And as for committing Dunning's openness to film, Stone remarked, "We were using subjectivity to make honesty more objective — and the pass-through to that objectivity was being up close to the subject."
For all of Dunning's bad periods, when Peter discusses his art or poetry, Stone reveals that Dunning is expressing a love for existence. "It's both beautiful and terrible. The film represents consciousness — his rage is existential and alive. But his art is how he lives."
Stone says that the land in Vermont is hard to tend, and that many of the descendants of puritan settlers grew tired of the poor soil and their difficult existences and moved westward. In that regard, says Stone, "The film is a guide to learn from some of the hardened passion of Peter and his farm," and that it's more generally "exciting to see people returning to the land" — partly because of a rejection of "big ag," a sentiment which Dunning echoes in the film. Stone, who has dined with Peter at the farm on numerous occasions, said that, "All his blood, sweat and tears go into how you're affected in consuming the food; with butter so orange it actually looks synthetic."
Stone and his spouse, the musician and photographer Melissa Auf der Maur, who produced Peter and The Farm, reside in New York's Hudson Valley and founded Basilica Hudson, "a non-profit multidisciplinary arts center supporting the creation, production and presentation of arts and culture while fostering sustainable community." These concepts formed an important theme for Stone with his film, who remarked, "We all benefit by what goes into a farm with regard to sustainability."
As to how Dunning is doing now, Stone says that when he came up originally, Peter had been recently cited for DWI and was tired of being alone and isolated. Stone himself says about the open-ended filming process, "The anticipation was exciting. It was an excuse to do something and go somewhere you really wanted to go." He also noted that Peter has been to see the film, and "is very objective about it." He is as resilient and irrepressible as the land he tends.