I had heard of Edward Abbey’s infamous novel, ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (1975), but I was unfamiliar with the man himself. Watching Wrenched, and listening to Abbey speak, I felt that there was no better way to summarise the core of his activism than in his own statement: “A bulldozer tearing up the hill-side is committing a kind of terrorism against life”. Underneath it all lies the terrifying vision of machines tearing and devouring the natural world and all living things that inhabit it. ML Lincoln’s documentary, Wrenched, concerns itself with Abbey and his legacy, of the groups and ideals that grew out of his fertile beliefs, and it will make you angry, hopefully in a good way.
When Abbey speaks he rumbles with a quiet, calm rage, speaking a Gonzo-like dialect in a voice that eerily resembles Hunter S. Thompson (that footage depicts him rolling through the American desert in a red Cadillac convertible adds to the mental association, and the Earth First flag depicts a Gonzo like fist thrusting upward). Abbey stands as one of the great outsiders; describing him as such is a kind of lunacy in itself, for his hopes and dreams should in no way be outside of the mainstream. He was a proponent of ‘wrenching’, of sabotaging the industrial complexes attempts to devour the world. Abbey describes the difference between terrorism and sabotage as being that the former is violence against living things, the latter is violence against machinery and property. The far greater crime is the objectification of living materials, transformed into money.
Like Godzilla, the origins of his odyssey is pinned to the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan. The mad chaos unleashed began him on his journey, leading him to embrace anarchism as he fought against a system gone power mad on death and destruction. He saw the centralisation of power as being dangerous, as contrary to pure democracy and equality. The Godzilla reference is quite apt (though not mentioned in the film), considering the posthuman story arc of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) involves humanity facing its own egocentric and brutally stupid belief in its total superiority. For Abbey, equality was not the sole bastion of humanity, but rather it stretches beyond humans to all things on and of the Earth. It is our responsibility to uphold equality, not to seize it all for our own.
Lincoln’s documentary is expertly crafted, an entertaining precis of an entire movement, brimming with fascinating figures and stories of highs and lows. It is also unashamedly biased and overloaded with praise; just like any number of documentaries I’ve seen on the life and times of Hunter S. Thompson. These outsider leaders, figures that tower over a conception of reality and for all the world look and sound like the last of a dying breed, well, they tend to inspire mythologising narratives from their followers. Lincoln handles it well, keeping the ideals of the movement in focus while using Abbey as a prism through which to shine a light.
The problem of language and representation is ever-present; one person’s vandal is another person’s hero. Who has the right to control the narrative, to define the terms of battle? A question too big for a documentary that has a dozen different targets in its sights, but nonetheless the question is allowed to brew in our minds. Wrenched’s vision of America is that of a rolling nightmare, where destruction leads to destruction, on and on: a town needs water, so they build a dam, then they need power to pump the water, which in turn leads to coal. It never ends. These strands come together in the story of Tim Dechristopher’s trial for disrupting the illegal sale of protected land by the US government. We are told that he was not allowed to use his belief in global warming as a defence, and thus the moral certitude with which he acted is refused admission into the case. Even though the government itself undoes the sale of the property, supporting the intentions of his moral act, he is still sentenced to prison. To whom does the land belong, and who gets to define the terms?
Wrenched stands as an excellent introduction to an ideological minefield. A quote from the film states that Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang is an incendiary device bound as a book”; this documentary will not blow the doors off of the industrial complex, but it’s a damn good tour guide, one that may well lead you to where the cultural dynamite is hidden as it raises an assortment of spectres that fed into one man’s, and then a whole movement’s desire to change the world.
By Ben Buckingham
DIRECTED BY ML LINCOLN
SCREENS AT THE ENVIRONMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL MELBOURNE: 6.30 PM, WEDNESDAY 10 SEPTEMBER
SCREENS WITH: NOCTURNAL WARRIORS