You Can’t Look Away From Tony Stone’s “Peter and the Farm”
By Jamie Larson
With elegant sweeping landscapes, scenes of animal processing and a lonely man battling his isolation and madness, Hudson-based filmmaker Tony Stone’s latest movie, “Peter and the Farm” is the naked examination of solitary, 70-year-old, organic farmer Peter Dunning. Though shot in Vermont, Stone (the co-founder of the Basilica Hudson performance and art venue with musician, wife and the film’s producer, Melissa Auf der Maur) has captured a powerful vignette with resonance here at home.
Stone will attend a screening and discussion of his acclaimed documentary hosted by the Pine Plains Memorial Hall at The Moviehouse in Millerton, New York on Jan. 22. The tightly focused documentary watches as Dunning shoulders an astonishing amount of daily labor and personal anguish. The film also bears witness to the complicated reality behind that which we’ve built a good chunk of our local cultural identity upon.
“When we started filming, Peter had been alone on the farm by himself for a year and a half because he’d also had a DWI. So he was extremely isolated,” said Stone, who initially rejected Dunning’s pitch to film his suicide, choosing instead to film his life.
“I think the predicament Peter is in is actually quite common. His family has been driven away, so there isn’t anyone to pass the family farm on to, and so you’re carrying the weight all by yourself with your aging body and your aging equipment. That’s kind of the only type of sustainability missing from Peter’s farm because there’s nobody to hand this thing off to.”
“We’re so entrenched in monoculture now, there is less room for a diverse farm like Peter’s that supports its own ecosystem,” said Stone, adding that while the impact of industrial farming is not an explicit theme of the movie, its presence hangs quietly overhead. “There’s income versus living, and Peter says he’s interested in making a living.”
Tony Stone and the Hudson Waterfront view in front of Basilica Hudson.
Stone spent a year visiting Dunning at his farm in Brattleboro with Auf der Maur and a small crew. He’s known Dunning from the farmers market since he was a kid growing up there, but had never visited the decaying farm itself before coming with his camera. The story of the farmer’s life quickly poured out before him. Stone doesn’t shy away from strong imagery in any of his work, and the inclusion of shots of butchering animals or a dead coyote swinging from a barn window might be difficult viewing for some. But for Dunning, it’s just the un-gratuitous activity of daily life. But one could use the word gratuitous for the amount the old man drinks.
“I’ve never seen such a high-functioning alcoholic, but even with his alcoholism he’s extremely active for 70,” said Stone. “The only thing he imports to the farm is basically alcohol and fuel. You see him just working away every day. That’s the Sisyphean thing about being a farmer.”
For all the bleakness, what captivates throughout the film is Dunning’s animated storytelling, engrossing personality and performative flair. Emotional and dramatic, he holds court while moving through his endless routine of chores.
“You watch Peter and he’s this unique character but his struggle is truly universal. As people will see when they watch the movie, he’s also such a performer. He was used to talking to the animals for many years. Suddenly he had this outburst and a need to just download all this stuff to us. He really invited us in.”
For Dunning, every action he takes throughout the day has a story. He would, in his own way, direct his story, telling Stone not to ask him about something until the right time. “The story arises from the event,” he said.
“There’s a natural arc that happens in the film. The confrontation happens at the right moment. It was like, ‘did Peter sort of write this whole narrative before we got there?’ But it is an amazing way to exist. He’s living on the clock of nature, living in the seasons.”
Shooting over the course of the year, Stone wanted to capture the seasonality of Dunning’s existence. In so doing he also captured the flowing visual beauty of a rural farm. Stone skillfully shoots the vibrant colors of summer through to the cold contrasts of winter. In other hands, the inherent pastoral elegance of the farm might serve as contrast or a foil to Dunning’s internal darkness. Stone shows that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
“We’re trying to place you there as much as possible. We never approached it with a pre-driven narrative about what we wanted the film to be. We just went forward and absorbed the land, the way Peter is, capture what he sees and feels and his attachment to it. A hilltop farm is incredibly beautiful but it’s also extremely difficult to manage and run.”
Stone says he likes screening the film in rural communities like Millerton and is especially gratified when farmers or the people close to them tell him he’s captured something about the way of life that is usually hidden. It’s a reminder that as we enjoy supporting farmers by patronizing their stands and eating “farm to table,” we aren’t always supporting them as members of our community. But as much as the film is about a single man or about farming, it also rumbles a low tune about the human condition and our own personal, subterranean loneliness.
Part of the film’s success is that Stone doesn’t feel a need to pull a moral out of the mud. But there is true beauty in the telling and filmcraft for sure. If you can’t make it to Millerton for the screening, “Peter and the Farm” is available for download online.