When you call cows, you say co’boss. And when you call sheep, you say co’da. This information is relayed to us in the first few minutes of Peter and the Farm by Peter Dunning, who’s lived and worked on 187 acres near Brattleboro, Vermont, for the lion’s share of his life. We catch a glimpse of that life in Tony Stone’s immersive documentary, which proves to be less an idyllic paean to the salt of the earth and more a reminder that all of us will eventually return to the earth.
A few minutes later, we watch as Peter shoots one of those sheep in the back of the head and it bleeds out. Stone’s film isn’t for the faint of heart, even if it’s rarely this graphic again: Peter and the Farm is all about the coexistence of beautiful environs and grim realities. “Farming is a revolving door: They come in, they come out,” the bearded sexagenarian muses. He’s a lifer, though. Peter tends to his animals, drinks more than he should, and shows off the hand that was mangled in an accident some forty years ago.
Most of all, he talks: about conceiving one of his sons one night in a tent, while sleeping out in the field to fend off thieving raccoons and coyotes with a rifle; about his doubts that the story he grew up being told about his father (namely, that he moved to California and died in a car accident) is true; about the fact that creativity and happiness rarely go hand in hand. Peter is so entertaining a presence, such a character, that his lively delivery of these anecdotes almost succeeds in masking the sadness behind them. He and his counterculture cohort at first envisioned farming as a means of working for part of the year and making art for the rest of it, an ideal that never came to fruition.
Not all is well on the homestead: Peter cites 1998 as the farm’s high-water mark; ever since then, he says, it’s been in a state of “decay and decline.” His heady ruminations often skew toward the melancholy: “The old man is slowing down and the weeds are speeding up,” the 68-year-old says near the film’s end. Watch as he recounts being left by his ex-wife as snow falls softly and a quiet synth score fills in the silence — his memories have once again caught up to him, and so he retreats indoors.
Peter’s farm, like a lot of other tucked-away spots in southern Vermont, is a place of great beauty and even greater quiet. He tells us that thoughts of suicide frequently creep into his mind, a problem worsened by his alcoholism, and after a while we begin to suspect that his profanity-laced running monologue may not be a show for the camera crew following him around, that life on Mile Hill Farm requires the sound of a human voice to get through the day — even if it’s his own.
Peter and the Farm
Directed by Tony Stone
Opens November 4, Metrograph
Available on demand