“I don’t need to be scattered here. I’ve been already.” – Peter Dunning
Peter and the Farm is a gorgeous film, often grotesquely so as it pierces the raw heart of life and death. First, with the stark reality of butchering animals, and secondly, with the depths of Peter’s personal existential crisis.
Peter is a man in pain facing the last chapter of his life alone. He’s physically dependent on alcohol, and is burnt out by the brutal routines of farm life. The pressure of the cycles of life and food bear down on his psyche like a drilling spiral. But the audience doesn’t know most of that at first. We’re initially greeted with the lush and gruesome realities of farm life in an autumn awash in browns and greys.
As the winter closes in with its glittery white blanket, the stories of Peter’s life are metered out with emotional precision. We don’t know until 30 minutes in that Peter’s left hand was once mangled in a work accident.
The photography is achingly stunning as Peter tells his stories amongst the falling snow, the lush brown like a seasoned performer. His farming life has obviously cultivated his skills as an artist and poet, his suffering, grief and despair are very much on the surface, practiced and mulled over. He seems to have almost made peace with his pain, or at least he is ready and willing to express it when given the opportunity. He’s let the film crew into his life because he trusts them, and he’s laying it all bare for them.
The end result is a work of art probing at the heart of our brief blips of life. He gets drunk in the early scenes, bonding with the filmmakers in a bit of intimacy only enhanced by the fact that the audience views it from the outside. He taps into the young self who embarked on this journey with a head full of ideals. He’d been trained in art, but been drawn to the organic farming life because he felt the impact he could make with that would help save the world somehow. Now, he’s marveling at how art has come back to him, and realizing that maybe this film, this art, maybe a part of his legacy. If that’s a secret hope he was nursing he would be correct. This art preserves him, his words and his farm, for longer than he had let himself hope before.
“I really wanted the farmer approval more than anything in the world. It was more important to me than art or poetry, or whatever. It was the only important thing to do. It was the only way to save the world. . . You want to save the world or do you want to go down.” – Peter Dunning
Peter shows us trees he’s planted, and remarks that this is his legacy: he’s stirred up the land and nurtured life in his time, and although it will all fade to black eventually, he has participated in the churning cycle of it all. One particular tree was planted 19 years ago, the last time he saw his daughter.
Peter later detachedly muses over the futile of his own efforts, at each human’s smallness in the face of not only the army of forgotten human lives who have already live and will live, but the billions of lifeforms swimming all around us constantly. As the film rolls on, his open frustration and candid poetry prove to be the symptoms of a deep depression worsened by the huge amount of alcohol he consumes. There’s talk of rehab, and while he says rehab and detox are inevitable, either that or suicide, he pushes the hope of healthy changes to the tangle of the future. “Not right now.”
On one particular dark day of filming, Peter has an emotional breakdown, his face contorting into the vulnerability of a sob as he confesses: “I care more about the farm than I care about myself.” When a filmmaker argues that the farm needs him to survive, he shakes off the basic logic of that observation. It’s true that Peter is the farm, and the farm is Peter. His love for the farm is fused with any regard for himself, and his self destructive and suicidal tendencies inevitably are died to the decline and decay of the farm. They are not multiple organism, unattached, but beating in a similar pulse, the wings of his self spread out into the green land and all the creatures under his burden, even the ones he slaughters.
“Life is really much more impressive than death. Life announces itself with force. Death slinks off. Dragged in sharp jaws under the turkey shed to be chewed apart – back to life again.” – Peter Dunning
The film takes us deep into the bloody mess of birth, excrement, and the kind of death that feeds more life. Even tilling the land to plant vegetation (hay and corn,) destroys the life of worms. Life is a constant eating of itself, and constant decay than turns into brutal renewal. The winter’s beautiful cold seems to stir up his well of darkness that lightens when the green of spring returns again. His outlook is washed with the sun again, but still burns with the heat of truth, the aching truth of nature. He feels trapped here in his tiring dance with nature, his relentless and brutal paradise.