“Film Review - Brave New West: Clinging Hopelessly to the Past in Moab”
by Dave Loos
December 12, 2007
They began to arrive in the early 1970s, wide-eyed idealists, via Volkswagon bus or a hitchhiked ride from the East, inspired and angry. The small cult of Ed Abbey followers descended on the American Southwest, most with a worn copy of Desert Solitaire in their backpack, many with dreams of preserving it’s natural beauty via any means, a la The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Jim Stiles was one of them. A native of Kentucky, Stiles came to Utah in 1975 and never looked back. Three decades later, with most of the gray-haired Abbey devotees having long ago dispersed to other locales, Stiles remains, a one-man show of sorts who has devoted his life to carrying on Abbey’s legacy, no matter how many people he pisses off in the process.
His exploits as a publisher and activist are captured in BRAVE NEW WEST a new documentary from the Missoula-based High Plains Films that will begin screening for the public next month.
It’s a captivating 80-minute film that ultimately succeeds in telling the story of the self-described hermit who has, over time, inspired a small cult following of his own the high desert of the Southwest.
Since 1989, Stiles has produced and published the Canyon Country Zephyr, a now bi-monthly alternative newspaper that the 50-something babyboomer has used to carry on Abbey’s crusade to preserve the “Old West” from exploitation and destruction. In a eerie coincidence nicely captured in the film, the first issue of the Zephyrwhich included an essay by Abbeywent to press on the same day that he died.
Stiles lives and works in unapologetic adherence to the Zephyr’s slogan"Clinging Hopelessly to the Past"and filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr give viewers a wonderful look into the day-to-day life of the activist publisher who long-ago settled in the Moab area of Utah. Of note is Stiles’ stubborn refusal to go digital (he writes his stories on a computer but uses the cut-and-paste method, along with hot wax brush, to layout the paper) to the countless hours he spends illustrating each issue himself.
An accomplished artist, it was Abbey himself who gave Stiles his first big break in the 1980s when he hired him to illustrate his books. Today, Stiles sticks mostly to cartoons and caricatures in the Zephyr, including hand-drawn caricatures for every advertisement in every issue. “It gets difficult drawing a new cartoon for the same plumbing company in every issue,” admits Stiles. “It takes some creativity.”
Nuggets like those keep the tone of the film light, despite the often-gloomy subject matter. Also interspersed throughout the film are fantastic video excerpts from a speech given by Abbey shortly before his death. It’s the first such footage I’d ever seen, and provided a wonderful treasure within the documentary.
The film is framed around a radio interview Stiles gave last year in Utah, a device that works well to document the different stages of his life. We follow Stiles from his childhood near Louisville to his first trip our West, to his first job as a volunteer ranger at Natural Bridges National Monument. He later worked at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and filmmakers deftly capture the irony of Stiles walking the fine line between government employee and environmental activist. At the time he worked at Glen Canyon, he also freelanced as a cartoonist for Earth First.
“I was a good ranger,” Stiles says in the film’s funniest moment. “I never did anything ... uh ... well never mind.”
It’s that same attitude that continues to motivate Stiles, a bachelor with no children, who is shown throughout the film working out of a tiny house and a beat-up pick-up truck. His criticism of growth and development in the region has made him a polarizing figure to many in the business and tourism community, as well as many environmentalists who find his views too radical.
While often critical of ranchers and miners, Stiles asserts that it ultimately will be the newcomers from “urban America” who destroy the rural West. “The people who claim to love it the most are one who will ruin it completely,” he says. “The newcomers are intimidated by the solitude, and so they try and make it just like the place they left.”
One issue of the Zephyr that the filmmakers capture Stiles producing is essentially an entire parody of the “adventure” vacation in Moab. It’s not surprising that the voiceovers throughout the documentary read as many angry letters to the editors as positive ones.
The film glosses over Stiles’ rocky family life, making brief mention of a divorce and strained relations with his parents. It’s unclear whether Stiles remains in any contact with family, a question the documentary should have asked.
There’s a melancholy undertone of inevitability throughout BRAVE NEW WEST that some might find depressing. Stiles admits that his recently-published book, which shares the same name as the documentary, offers no solutions, only a eulogy to what has occurred in the Moab area over the past 20 years. That feeling is driven home in the epilogue when we learn of Stiles’ current whereabouts.
As Stiles says, “I guess I’m just drawn to hopeless lost causes,”
Yet somehow, through his cartoons and self-deprecating humor, Stiles manages to exude a resilient attitude and a feeling that all is not lost. The filmmakers in turn feed off that, producing this entertaining portrait of one of Southwest’s most eccentric characters.
This is a story that deserves an audience, and will likely find one in the Rocky Mountain West.