The first thing I noticed about Peter Dunning, the subject of the documentary Peter and the Farm, was his injured hand. It’s gnarled and he’s missing fingers, and at 68 years old he’s managed to function with just a thumb and two digits as he goes about his daily routine. He walks in a way that keeps the hand somewhat concealed but conversely draws attention to it.
There’s a story there, I thought, and this is a rich character full of them. In just seconds on screen, here is someone who’s lived a life.
Tony Stone’s documentary is a collection of stories from this aging Vermont farmer. He has plenty to talk about, and plenty that he’s trying to avoid telling. There’s mostly a story of depression and decline, and it’s mirrored there on the land.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of New Directors/New Films, an annual showcase of emerging filmmakers from around the world. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Peter and the Farm
Director: Tony Stone
Release Date: November 4, 2016 (limited)
There’s an old idea that the health of a king would be reflected in the state of his kingdom, and that when a king’s reign is in decline, so too the kingdom would fall to ruin. Dunning constantly mentions how this farm he bought in the 1960s isn’t what it used to be, and how things are falling apart. He recalls glory days with his family (who are no longer present), and even shares a story about conceiving one of his kids while trying to shoot varmints. Yet the planks are rotting and the paint is peeling, and Dunning’s lonely and depressed and an alcoholic.
Stone catches the high and lows of this life in solitude as the seasons pass, showing concern for Dunning as a person as well as the subject for a documentary. It’s a tough balance, and I sometimes wonder how documentary filmmakers manage it. Dunning’s a salty guy, and he sometimes rags on city-boy Stone and his crew from New York as they come up to his farm. Still, there’s a sense that Dunning is hungry for the company. The crew generally tries to stay out of Dunning’s way to document the life he leads, but there are moments of concern they express on camera, and it expressed my own concerns for Dunning’s well-being.
This might be the city-boy in me talking, but there’s a sense of romance about living a sustainable life on an organic farm. Stone cuts through that, however, getting into the mud and shit and sheer dissatisfaction that are the realities of Dunning’s livelihood.
In one particularly fetid scene, a cow in the foreground of a shot makes a healthy bowel movement for the unflinching camera. A farm veterinarian checks if the cow’s pregnant, which involves shoving his arm into the cow’s rectum all the way up to the bicep. Thankfully that’s just out of frame as a hail of dung scatters to the barn floor.
To the camera after he’s done, the vet laughs and says he’s going to get some lunch.
The land and the man are one in Peter and the Farm, and we have to take the high and the low as part of a whole. There’s a rustic beauty to the solitude of the farm, and Dunning’s recollections of his marriages and his friendships have a kind of poetry about them as well. He was an artist and a marine and into the counterculture, and now he’s on a farm. That’s one hell of a story.
But there’s always a kind of misery underlying it all, and countless regrets. For every joy there’s a desire for something lost and irretrievable in the past, an acknowledgment of more work to be done, and a dark sense that the work to be done won’t be worth it in the end. Dunning confesses so much on screen, and with such sincerity, it makes me wonder about what’s too painful to disclose, and what kinds of equivocation might be at play.
With farming there’s a larger metaphor for tilling the land, taming it, enriching the soil, making it yield what we want. One of my big takeaways from Peter and the Farm is that the metaphor sounds great but mostly in theory. The actual, physical ground we work on and our own interior lives often resist the impulse to be tamed. That struggle is the stuff of stories like Peter Dunning’s--shit and sundowns and the occasional moment to reflect.