Aspen Times Weekly: MountainSummit gets ‘Wrenched’
If You Go…
Where: Wheeler Opera House & Ute Mountaineer
When: Thursday, Aug. 21 – Sunday, Aug. 24
More info: www.wheeleroperahouse.com
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Thursday, Aug. 21, 7:30 p.m.
More info: www.wheeleroperahouse.com
Arizona-based filmmaker ML Lincoln’s new film, “Wrenched,” makes a compelling case for author Edward Abbey as the father of the radical environmental movement.
The feature-length documentary tracks the roots of Earth First! and the tactics of what some brand as “eco-terrorism” to Abbey’s seminal works — the novels “The Monkey Wrench Gang” (1975) and “Hayduke Lives” (1989) and his memoir/treatise on wilderness “Desert Solitaire” (1968) — and his fierce advocacy for wilderness and against development. What others called “eco-terrorism,” he called “night work” — burning billboards, cutting fences, sabotaging construction equipment.
Writer Charles Bowden, in the film, characterizes “The Monkey Wrench Gang” as “an incendiary device bound as a book.”
Abbey fans will be grateful to see the real Gang’s reminiscences recorded for posterity in the film. Newcomers to Abbey’s passionate life and powerful work, meanwhile, will get a substantial introduction to the man and his legacy.
“He was the person that melded environmentalism and anarchism,” Abbey’s friend Jack Loeffler says in the film, later adding: “Ed was basically a guerilla warrior at heart.”
Abbey, who died in 1989, is featured in archival footage throughout, dropping characteristic witticisms such as “Human society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up, you get a lot of scum on top.”
Lincoln began the project in 2007, when she interviewed Ken Sleight — a legendary river runner and activist who served as the inspiration for Seldom Seen Smith in “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”
Her previous short film, “Drowning River,” helped her get her foot in the door with Sleight and other figures from Abbey’s circle and the radical environmental movement. That film — which screened at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest in 2008 — is about singer and actress Katie Lee, whose songs about Glen Canyon remain anthems for the movement, and who is also featured in “Wrenched.”
As Lincoln met the real Monkey Wrench Gang, the scope of her story grew.
“After interviewing Katie Lee, I realized there were a whole lot of other people out there,” she said in a recent interview. “I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can find the original Monkey Wrench Gang people’ and I did and then it went from there.”
With a small crew, she ended up spending 7 years compiling interviews — 40 in all — and amassing archival footage of Abbey. She calls the film her current form of activism.
“The thing that really brought to mind how great this grassroots movement is was how generous they were with their time and their stories,” Lincoln says. “It was fantastic in that way.”
The documentary, which is featured amid four days of film screenings at the Wheeler Opera House’s MountainSummit, is a character-driven story. It’s not a topic-based polemic or a straight biography. Instead it tracks Abbey’s influence, with input from the Gang members but also from environmental leaders like Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman. “Wrenched” devotes substantial time to the story of Tim DeChristopher, the activist who in 2008 successfully bid on 14 parcels of Utah federal land in a gas lease auction to keep them away from oil companies.
The film suggests DeChristopher may be the current embodiment of Abbey’s vision for defending the land. But Abbey’s cohorts also wonder whether the old methods of monkey-wrenching translate into the 21st century.
“If Edward Abbey were alive today, he’d say the old way of monkey-wrenching is not effective enough,” Abbey’s friend Ken Sanders suggests.
John De Puy, the inspiration for Doc Sarvis in “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and a lifelong friend to Abbey, takes a dimmer view on their legacy: “In retrospect, I wonder if we achieved anything at all.”
One memorable archival film sequence shows Abbey driving through Arches National Park, reminiscing about his time there as a ranger and writing “Desert Solitaire.” There are also clips from “Lonely Are the Brave,” the 1962 Kirk Douglas film based on Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy,” along with graphic animations, re-enactments and news footage.
Lincoln aimed to make the film more entertaining than the typical talking-head-laden documentary, and attempted to avoid the heavy-handedness of many environmental films.
“Many documentaries, especially about the environment, you come away with a draggy feeling — a feeling of, ‘I can’t do anything. I’m so depressed,’” Lincoln says. “I don’t want people to come away with that feeling and I don’t think they do.”
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