Videos: Remembering Abbey

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1994

Videos: Remembering Abbey
By Gregory McNamee

Edward Abbey has been dead for five years now, a fact that, as you might imagine, has spawned a sizable wave of anniversary remembrances. A new "spiritual biography" of Abbey has just appeared in bookstores, and at least two full-scale accounts of his life are in the offing. Earth Apples, a collection of Abbey's poems, and Confessions of a Barbarian, a compilation of his journals, are both slated for publication in September.

Joining the rising flood is director Eric Temple's new hour-long documentary, Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness, a fine effort that captures much of the man's spirit through intelligent storytelling and cinematography. Interweaving voice-over passages from Abbey's writings with interviews of friends and colleagues such as Charles Bowden, Terry Tempest Williams, Doug Peacock, and Dave Petersen, Temple takes us on a thoughtful journey through the life and work of the desert rat, giving us glimpses of the places that inspired him--especially the slickrock country of southeastern Utah--and the people who shaped him.

Surprisingly, Temple is able to negotiate this voyage without being slowed by hero worship, a common obstacle for Abbey biographers. Like most of us, Temple's story reveals, Abbey was a mass of contradictions: He despised public-lands ranching but loved thick steaks cooked blood-rare; he spoke out against consumerism and industrialism but tooled around the desert in a Cadillac convertible; he held lifetime memberships in both the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. Neither Temple nor his interview subjects shy away from these disparities. For instance, Abbey's widow, Clarke, speaks candidly of his love for her while at the same time observing that he never was quite able to understand women--a lack of connection that turns up in such impossibly stereotypical characters as Bonnie Abbzug of The Monkey Wrench Gang.

Temple's video is full of such revealing moments. Even more enjoyable, though, is its liberal use of Abbey's brash sense of humor. In one scene Abbey, speaking before a rather hostile Montana audience, not only denounces cattle ranching, but caps his point by musing whether cowboys haven't spent too much time staring at the back ends of their herds. He winkingly admits to conducting firsthand research in ecosabotage, or "monkeywrenching," and he owns up to youthful follies like his disastrous first novel, Jonathan Troy,with the Cheshire-cat grin that became something of a trademark. "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view," Abbey blesses an audience toward the end of the film. His own certainly were, and it's a pleasure to spend an hour tagging along.

$24.95. From Canyon Productions, Box 2284, South Burlington, VT 05407; 800-644-4747.

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