Peter and the Farm
Directed by Tony Stone
Opens November 4 at the Metrograph
Over the past decade or so, awareness docs about industrial food production have sprouted up all over the landscape. Concerning a quainter form of agribusiness altogether—the often-arduous business of organic farming—the prickly pastoral Peter and the Farm offers a breath of fresh air, but that’s not to say it’s an easy sit. In an early scene, the camera looks straight-on as star of the show Peter Dunning, a graybeard who’s long been a fixture of Vermont’s Brattleboro Farmers’ Market, shoots a sheep in the head and proceeds to skin it and gut it with deliberate strokes of a knife. At a later point, the foulmouthed raconteur recounts how, in his 20s, he mangled his left hand with a band saw, spending three months in the hospital and undergoing several last-ditch operations to save the appendage. (The effort paid off, sort of.)
A chattier descendant of Dominique Benichetti’s Cousin Jules (1973) and Ben Rivers’s Two Years at Sea (2011), director Tony Stone’s film winds up offering a much less placid picture of the seasons’ passage than do those meditations about living off the land. It is, if anything, perhaps too strong a brew. As the surroundings tuck in under a thick blanket of snow, Peter and the Farm gradually deepens and darkens as single-subject portraiture. Ex-Marine and child of the counterculture Dunning has spent decades trying to tame his flocks and alienating the people closest to him (three wives and four children included), precipitating a kind of spiritual reckoning that plays out—very painfully—before the camera. The cantankerous man, who at one point remarks that he had to wake up twice the previous night just to drink enough to stave off the d.t.’s, even pitches Stone on the idea of documenting his own suicide.
The bilious and beautifully shot Peter and the Farm, which premiered locally at last spring’s New Directors/New Films showcase, contains many such moments of its subject talking about the film to the filmmakers. He jokes about abandoning the farm and moving to Hollywood, and he asks Stone what his footage is “picking up on.” If Dunning’s willful self-destruction sometimes tests the limits of the viewer’s sympathy, at least the documentary retains an openness of form that feels hopeful in its own way. As he roots around the property, Stone seems eager to communicate that he has no plan per se, just an abiding trust that there’s value in laying bare the tortured relationship between this person and this place. “This farm becomes me; I’ve become the farm,” declaims Dunning, reading from a prose poem during one of the film’s lovely interludes. These 187 acres have, like their caretaker, seen better days. But they look no less idyllic for it—the mere sight of the farm, a sort of man-made arcadia, proves that Dunning’s tumultuous life has not, as he fears, come to nothing.