“I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre,” says Peter Dunning, the cranky, charismatic subject of Tony Stone’s penetrating documentary portrait of a complicated personality, inseparable from his environment. “This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm.” That turns out to be quite an accurate summation of Peter and the Farm, a beautifully observed window into a life of backbreaking work, tireless dedication and creeping regret, which juxtaposes stirring images of pastoral tranquility with unguarded glimpses of an irascible, hard-drinking man given to jagged moments of anger and despair.
Transfixing in its workplace detail and haunting in its harsh commentary on a solitary existence, the film was shot over the course of a year or so on the Vermont organic cattle, sheep and pig farm that Dunning has owned for 35 years. When he purchased the sprawling 136-acre property at age 34, he thought its challenges looked like fun. Now, as he approaches 70, not so much. In his own words, it’s cost him “four children, two wives and an inheritance.”
Cold comfort farm.
Dunning is a fascinating character. He’s a product of the late-’60s counterculture and its back-to-the-land movement, but although residual glimmers linger of that poetic idealism, they chafe against the embittered outlook of a man soured by the changing world around him and by his own encroaching dark moods. This is not the mellow, pleasantly stoned guy smiling at you from behind the farmers market produce stand. It’s a dirty-realist portrait of a deeply conflicted man constantly battered by gnawing questions about the meaning and purpose of his life.
On the other hand, Dunning also has illuminating moments in which he’ll look out across the fields as the gentle springtime light filters through the pear trees and wonder, “What am I complaining about? Thirty-five years on this beautiful farm…” It’s those dramatic contrasts that make the film so intensely absorbing, at times even moving. Speaking of the trial-and-error approach he has brought to his three-plus decades of farming, he says of the land, “You have to learn what it wants to be. Not what you want it to be. It takes time.”
Perhaps the perception is enhanced by the way director Stone and editor Maxwell Paparella have assembled the material, but Dunning’s moods appear to some degree steered by the seasons. Clearly, he loves his land and his livestock. “I care more about the farm than me,” he confesses. He admits without sentimentality that the farm has been in deep decline since the late ‘90s, the last time any of his now seemingly estranged immediate family lived there with him. And he freely acknowledges that, if he means to continue running the place, he needs to stop drinking. Though he wonders if that would even make a difference at this point. “The old man is slowing down, and the weeds are speeding up,” he muses in what he describes as one of his “shitty little poems.”
Still, as bleak as it gets — and when Dunning suggests that Stone should document his suicide, it gets plenty bleak — the film never becomes maudlin. The subject is not the consoling type, but for a depressed alcoholic with a cellar full of homemade cider, he’s consistently engaging. Cursing like a longshoreman, he drops in random fragments of his history that the filmmakers, who are always present though never intrusive, subtly shape into a rough mosaic.
He reflects on being adopted, still bristling over never having been given the full story about his birth parents. He points out the places on the farm where his children were conceived. He recalls his days in the Marines, leading a bunch of drunken servicemen in a West Side Story sing-along on the streets of Honolulu after they got obliterated on the beach at Waikiki. His natural stoicism tempers his ruefulness as he describes the sawmill accident that permanently mangled his hand soon after he graduated from college, where he majored in painting and minored in sculpture. The movie is as much a portrait of the tormented artist as it is a chronicle of agricultural life.
Dunning is brusquely matter-of-fact when it comes to butchering his animals or killing coyotes, which have all but annihilated his flock of sheep during a particularly rough stretch. Unflinching footage of him slaughtering a ewe and feeding its blood to the hogs will have vegetarians covering their eyes. But that ugliness is as much a part of Stone’s vigorous portrait as the rolling green hills and the scent of fresh hay bales that practically jumps off the screen. By his own reckoning, Dunning is trapped, though there’s poignant resignation behind his words when he considers the alternative: “What else? Where else?”
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Production company: Heathen Films, in association with Cinema Conservancy
Director: Tony Stone
Producers: Tony Stone, Melissa Auf der Maur, Jake Perlin, Andrew Adair
Executive producer: Cameron Brodie
Directors of photography: Tony Stone, Nathan Corbin
Editor: Maxwell Paparella
Sales: Magnolia Pictures International
Not rated, 92 minutes