Rightwing Film Geek

Life and death of a Grizzly Man


GRIZZLY MAN (Werner Herzog, USA, 9)

Take me home, oh Muddah, Fadduh, Take me home, I hate Granada,
Don’t leave me out in the forest, where I might get eaten by a bear.
— Allan Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”

GrizzlyPosterIt’s amazing how much a man can will himself into not knowing or not regarding — even the simplest things that make for a throwaway joke in a parody-campfire song.

Werner Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man” is, on the surface at least, a nature documentary, like this summer’s surprise hit “The March of the Penguins.” But in nearly every way it’s not only the opposite of, but even the antidote to, “Penguins,” whose appeal is based on how “cute” its semi-personified little animals are — Tennessee Tuxedo and his bud Chumley the Walrus. But Herzog does the opposite — covering the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who camped out in an Alaska nature reserve to live among giant grizzly bears and “protect” them (from whom or what is never exactly made clear). Very early on (so not a spoiler), we learn Treadwell and his little-seen girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by one of the wild bears, whom he treats like Winnie the Pooh and the Hair Bear Bunch, even giving them cute names and cooing over their piles of dung.

A large part of what makes “Grizzly Man” a masterpiece is that Treadwell shot hundreds of hours of video of himself among the bears, usually setting up the cameras on the ground and then talking to the lens about what he was doing or giving his latest manifesto, like it was his vacation slides at Disneyland or “The Real World, Alaska.” In his frequent German-accented voiceover, Herzog also reads liberally from Treadwell’s diaries.

At the start, Herzog apologized for using so much of Treadwell’s footage, rather than his own. There was no need — he couldn’t have matched this. At one and the same time, the Treadwell footage is funny, unintentionally revealing, sad, and chilling. It’s like watching a man die on his own reality TV show, while he doesn’t know what the show’s premise is. (And a woman just following him where, the few clues we get suggest, she doesn’t want to go.) Herzog also milks the footage timeline for maximum emotional impact, like the great fiction film-maker he also is — one piece of footage was only minutes before the fatal attack and probably shows the actual bear in the background.

The reality TV parallels and “life as performance” themes come in elsewhere, in some of the interviews. For example, Treadwell friend Jewel Palovak is given his “still-ticking” watch by the coroner, and it’s so transparently a “staged” moment that it practically recodes itself as the film unspools. The “spontaneous” chatter and the stiffly practiced “thanks for giving me my friend’s watch” lines are almost parodic — the sort of bad naturalistic “acting” you see on porn films. But Herzog lets the film go on for several seconds after the “scene” is over and the difference in naturalism is palpable.

GrizzlyMan2It’s clear by the end of the film that Treadwell is a complete nutter. He becomes increasingly paranoid, seeing neutral or congratulatory messages and even a smiley face painted onto stones (planted by whom … if not himself, in order to be “found” and photographed later?) as warnings and proof that “they” are closing in on him. He levels an obscene volley of expletives at the Park Service over regulations that Herzog calls “perfectly reasonable” about getting too close to the bears. In a movie filled with almost Sophoclean moments of hubris (practically every shot of Treadwell cooing over the bears), that one stands out particularly, as if Treadwell were deliberately courting death. At some points in the footage, he matter-of-factly talks about his possible death, and at others insists these cuddwy widdle fwiends will never hurt him. Also, it was never quite made clear what exactly Treadwell was doing, as he insisted he was, to “protect” these grizzly bears. We see only one shot of other human beings (besides Treadwell’s little-seen girlfriend and the pilot who flew him there) — and that was people in boats taking photos of the bears ashore, only Treadwell insists they’re really poachers. But even apart from the complete lack of evidence of this, all Treadwell does is watch, photograph and comment, like he’s playing the host of a nature-TV show. It’s as if he’s consciously playing a self-presented role, an image, a persona, rather than doing something. Herzog also shows how Treadwell contrived his whole image, even down to doing multiple takes of the same “natural” shot in the wilderness for the film he planned to make of himself.

So why?

In a word — religion. Or a kind of self-created religiosity, certainly. A search for self that flees from oneself. Treadwell says at one point “I had no life. Now I have a life” in the bears. It’s also an attempt, Herzog says, “to leave his humanness behind” and be one with what he worshipped — a common religious theme not unknown to, among many others, St. Paul. Treadwell even founded a group called “Grizzly People.” In his reconstruction of Treadwell’s past, Herzog makes it explicit that Treadwell’s whole life was afflicted by erratic wanderlust — going off to school then dropping out, abandoning his family, going out to California to surf, the frequent drug use, claiming a mysterious past as an Australian orphan, and then finding God in nature. We practically know the script by heart, it seems.

But like Adam and Eve who thought they could be as gods themselves, Treadwell is a postmodern trangressive who sees no limit to what his efforts can do — “God would adore me for what I do,” he says at one point; and on another, he commands God to produce rain because the bears are starving from low river flows. He didn’t accept his createdness as a limitation, instead thinking he could transcend nature by babbling on about how he’ll be safe from the bears because of samurai codes and showing no fear around the bears, as if they make any difference GrizzleManEyesin such an unequal physical matchup (“man-vs-bear” is not quite “fighting above your weight class”). Treadwell exemplifies a refusal to accept that nature limits you, whether it’s in communication (Herzog says he looks in the bears’ eyes and sees only the mystery of their absolute Otherness) or the ultimate natural end — death, something only a god could transcend.

The ironic thing is that “Grizzly Man” shows how real pre-modern cultures may be simpler, but are much harsher and far more realistic. They know not to trangress nature’s limits and know it demands human sacrifice — two things that happen in “Grizzly Man.” Herzog gives a short interview with an Alaska Native (you know … the Native Americans who are so in touch with nature) who says Treadwell paid the “ultimate disrespect” because “he tried to be a bear. You can’t do that.” The Alaskan also points out that Treadwell may have done more damage by habituating at least some of the bears to man, another boundary the bears would naturally know to respect. Nature intrudes everywhere, spoiling man’s plans, even for nice unobtrusive documentary footage. The pilot who describes finding the bodies (probably the sanest man in the movie) gives his account amid a sea of unwanted insects — constant reminders of nature.

Herzog has a well-earned reputation for obsession with insane or dysfunctional characters. Of the six films of his I’ve seen — two have starred a certified schizophrenic, the child-like Bruno S. (“Stroszek” and “The Enigma of Kasper Hauser”), one portrayed a whole town of lunatics (“Heart of Glass”) and three centered on men who (sorta) lose their grip on reality in the course of pursuing some mad plan (“Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Nosferatu”). And some of the footage of Herzog himself in Les Blank’s documentary “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of “Fitzcarraldo,” shows a paranoid man at the edge of reason, even in a nonconfrontational talking-head interview.

But here in “Grizzly Man,” Herzog stands apart from the material much more than he ever did in his fiction films. At one level, Herzog clearly sympathizes with Treadwell. After hearing denunciatory letters about how Treadwell got what he deserved, saying that “I would like to defend him as a film-maker,” proceeding to cite and show all the interesting features of Treadwell’s footage. But he lays his final cards on the table when he says that Treadwell was done in by an an oversentimentalized view of the bears, which was part of his overall childlike view of nature as good and harmonious. Herzog then describes some of the “nature, red in tooth and claw” features of bear behavior and says he sees the “common denominator in the universe as chaos, hostility and murder.” Even when Treadwell sees two male bears fighting over a female, and afterward, he still doesn’t *see.* He interprets it in romantic triangle terms — “Saturn is like Michelle Pfeiffer” — and he talks of “Mickey,” as though he was a boxer who had just lost a close 10-round decision rather than a badly wounded creature who may not live, because of his self-consuming desire to mate.


By the end, like Norma Desmond clutching at her comeback role, Treadwell has become his own delusions, been enfolded by his dream. Even though started out the Grizzly Man role as a contrived image, he’s become what he’s seen himself as. “He was no longer an actor in a role, but fighting civilization,” Herzog says of a late rant, adding that he himself had seen that kind of “incandescent rage” only on a movie set (Klaus Kinski’s performances in “Aguirre” and “Fitzcarraldo,” plus the Blank documentary, gave us vague clues about what he’s referring to). But in one of “Grizzly Man’s” most powerful sequences and the only one to have Herzog appear onscreen (though on the edge of the frame and with his back to the camera), the film-maker listens in front of Palovak to an audio tape of the fatal attack (Treadwell’s camera had been on, but the cap hadn’t been taken off the lens, so no video footage exists). Jewel says she has never listened to the tape, though it is in her possession. We hear nothing but the room’s ambient noise on the soundtrack, but if you have any imagination at all, the silence is deafening. Herzog tells her not to ever listen to it, and even destroy it because it’ll be the white elephant in the room for the rest of her life. Herzog may be a little touched, but like the Alaska natives and unlike Treadwell, he respects nature and fiction for what they are, not how he’d like them to be, and knows how far they can and cannot be pushed. Treadwell did not. Herzog is a sane madman; Treadwell an insane madman.

August 24, 2005 Posted by | Werner Herzog | Leave a comment

That’s Ambassador Bolton to you, Ryan


Now beginning Muse Malade Meltdown Watch (go to the end of this otherwise-irrelevant-here post on favorite directors for the punchline).

“UN ambassador” is a job that should not exist. And so, like “sex educator” or “conflict-resolution facilitator” or “diversity counselor,” anybody who is eager for the job is, on that very basis, exactly the sort of person who should not have it. We want a UN ambassador like John Bolton who has a healthy contempt for the institution, doesn’t buy the globalist mularkey and sees the institution as at most a means to an end (advance the US national interest) rather than an end in itself (global cooperation as such). The U.N. is not an embryonic world-government, is not a “parliament of man,” does not express some “global community,” and represents nobody other than corrupt dictators and decadent cosmopolitan elites. Nothing was more indicative of Bill Clinton’s mind at work than his saying in defense of the 1991 first Gulf War cease-fire terms that “the United Nations demanded — not the United States, the United Nations demanded — and Saddam Hussein agreed” to turn over all WMDs and related missile and research programs. It was as if the UN had a moral imprimatur to bestow that the mere US did not.

Deborah Orin in The New York Post made the excellent point that to the extent personality matters (though it really doesn’t — ambassadors represent their nations’ governments, not themselves, and they understand that about each other), we want a rough-edged guy like Bolton, particularly one who has the president’s ear, a fact that is demonstrated by Bush’s recess appointment and which would be undermined by a Bolton substitute, someone who would be publicly known to be the president’s second choice.

Speaking of the NY Post, their Tuesday edition had a funny graphic box (not apparently online) accompanying the picture of Bolton and Bush.

Now that John Bolton is U.N. ambassador, he should:
(1) Boot Sudan, Cuba, China and Zimbabwe from the UN Human Rights Commission.
(2) Frog-march U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan out of office for allowing oil-for-food scandal.
(3) Create a U.S. inspector-general for U.N. oversight.
(4) Force the French ambassador to say “Thank you, America,” every time he speaks.
(5) Let Donald Trump refurbish the U.N. plaza.

But in my wildest fantasy, this James Lileks column was a real transcript.

August 5, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Coming Dictatorship of Relativism

From the soft tyranny to the north aka, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan, the fine and distinguished gentleman Bob Ferguson calls for the state to make Catholicism illegal and/or determine Catholic doctrine. You think I’m exaggerating? Here are the money quotes (and the audio link for the knee-jerk “it’s a pro-life site he’s linking to” reaction):

Catholicism should be illegal:

Then it would be illegal to require a particular marital status as a condition of employment or to exclude women from the priesthood.

The state should decide Catholic teaching:

Of course the Vatican wouldn’t like the changes, but they would come to accept them in time as a fact of life in Canada. Indeed I suspect many clergy would welcome the external pressure.

Religion, after all, is SO dangerous. Particularly when people, like, believe it.

Religion is important in our lives, but it can become a danger to society when people claim that the unalterable will of God is the basis for their opinions and actions.

I understand that this is just a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commentary, not a government official or policy. But it nevertheless chilling as an indication of where the intellectual center of gravity is in a country that many American liberals admire, some more than their own (Michael Moore, the “Queer as Folk” writers). The very softness of speech, the reassuring “not a frothing nut” tone also invites it to be taken seriously. The CBC led into the piece with blandly favorable introductory chatter provided here on the CBC’s transcript, which also has the address, for those without audio. Best I can tell, Ferguson is not a regular CBC commentator, but since CBC is state-run and Canada has some pretty draconian “hate speech” laws, the fact this was considered fit to run constitutes at least some amount of government endorsement — as legitimate opinion, within the bounds of acceptable discourse.

Since Canada already has taken, under the guise of the state’s hate speech laws and various profession-regulating bodies, to legal punishment and marginalization of Christians (and liberal favorite Sweden is even jailing ministers), it’s impossible not to see a double standard at work here and get, if not a whiff of the ovens, at least the clean-scrubbed smell of Soviet psychiatry wards.

August 2, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Coming Dictatorship of Relativism, Part 2

California’s highest court rules that a country club that offers discounts and privileges to spouses of members must do the same for unmarried couples, including same-sex pairings. In a spectacularly … um … interesting quote, the justices say: “A business that extends benefits to spouses it denies to registered domestic partners engages in impermissible marital status discrimination.” But all laws that treat married couples as a class discriminate (that’s kind of their point). And then there’s this:

“The Legislature has made it abundantly clear than an important goal of the Domestic Partner Act is to create substantial legal equality between domestic partners and spouses,” Justice Carlos Moreno wrote for a five-judge majority. “We interpret this language to mean that there shall be no discrimination in the treatment of registered domestic partners and spouses.”

Since California also has a law that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman, it’s hard how this construal of a domestic-partners law, plus the casual invocation of “marital status discrimination,” doesn’t make California’s marriage-definition law an effective nullity and that the justices have de facto created homosexual “marriage” in everything but name, the M-word. After all, any difference drawn between married couples and domestic partners is, on its face, discrimination — i.e., unequal treatment.

One law professor, Gerald Uelmen of Santa Clara, opined to the LA Times that the case might undermine the homosexual “marriage” case currently before the California justices because it effectively grants to domestic partners all the incidents of marriage, meaning that homosexuals would not be being discriminated against. I wish I had that kind of faith in the neutral application of legal principle. “The gays are the Good Guys” is the real legal principle being upheld here and throughout the Legal Class and their representatives in the Judicial Oligarchy. If someone were to make Uelmen’s argument, it’d be swept aside as “separate is inherently unequal” or with some argument to the effect that this proves the distinction between “married” and “domestic partner” is an irrational classification to begin with and so ordering homosexual “marriage” (the legal name for this doctrine is “Heads I win, tails you lose”).

The cases prove that “liberals are tolerant” is, to use the technical term, a pile of crap. The fantasy that a society can run on “you leave me alone if I leave you alone” is … simply … descriptively inaccurate. False. All societies must have religions (the question being merely “dedicated to which god?”) and what we’re seeing in these unravelings of liberal “tolerance” in re homosexuality is the playing out of this universal truth (if I were a cynic or a conspiratorialist, I would say it always was a bait-and-switch scheme). Liberals have a vision of Good and Evil, a set of morals consequent upon them, and wish to remake all societies in that image, circumstances permitting. And those whose religions are different have to be (varyingly) marginalized, persecuted or (as Bette Midler put it in THE STEPWORD WIVES remake) “re-educated.”

August 2, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Just for you, Donna

Which theologian are you?

You scored as Anselm. Anselm is the outstanding theologian of the medieval period. He sees man’s primary problem as having failed to render unto God what we owe him, so God becomes man in Christ and gives God what he is due. You should read ‘Cur Deus Homo?’

Karl Barth
Jonathan Edwards
John Calvin
Paul Tillich
Charles Finney
Friedrich Schleiermacher
Martin Luther
Jürgen Moltmann

Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

Here’s another of those fun personality tests that was initially posted by Barbara Nicolosi where I took the test first (and must have given a couple of slightly different answers from what I’m about to post because the results I posted in her comment field aren’t exactly the same as what I’m about to post here — they’re a little less polar there). I suspect I gave slightly different answers for some questions about which I am somewhat indifferent (“The best way of expressing our love and unity with God is by music”), sloppily worded (“When Jesus said his blood was spilled for ‘many’, he meant ‘all’ “) or think a false dichotomy (“Good preaching is more important than good theology”)

No surprise that Anselm and Augustine are out front, and while I knew I would score highly with the Calvinists Barth and … uh … Calvin, the fact that Barth is tied with Augustine was a bit disconcerting. I’ve never read anything by Barth firsthand (I don’t even own a copy of CHURCH DOGMATICS, or even a full volume of Calvin himself for that matter, and I’m told Barth’s magnum opus is strictly for professionals and stylistic masochists) while St. Augustine is a man I walk with every day. I was also surprised how much lower I scored for Martin Luther, though I suspect strongly disagreeing with “the papacy is a tool of the devil” will do that. And I’m disappointed that I didn’t score lower for Jurgen Moltmann.

August 2, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On not being a comic-book geek

BATMAN BEGINS, Christopher Nolan, USA, 2005, 4
THE FANTASTIC FOUR, Tim Story, USA, 2005, did not see

I don’t know why I had such high expectations for BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, I do … the director Christopher Nolan made one of the decade’s two or three best films in MEMENTO which both pulled the greatest last-scene mindfuck in movie history and illustrated in a coldly intellectual way Chesterton’s aphorism about men believing anything rather than nothing. His remake of INSOMNIA was a creditable achievement, an improvement on the original Norwegian policier. He managed to tone Al Pacino down, to get a good performance from Robin Williams, and to prevent Hilary Swank from wrecking the movie. So on the “let’s see what a favorite director can do with a hundred zillion dollars” theory, I was interested in the Batman prequel.

I shoulda knew better. BATMAN BEGINS is less a Nolan movie than a comic-book movie, a genre that among my 30-something cinephile friends I am pretty much alone in having little interest and even apart from that no reference point whatsoever. (I’m guessing … does the little boy in the balcony grow up to be Robin?) I had a lot of cartoon comics as a boy in Britain — the truly surreal Beano and Beezer (Ernie Kovacs is the closest US comparison I can think of), the more-sedate Dandy and Topper, the smart-aleck Cracker, the Scottish staples Oor Wullie and the Broons, and to a lesser extent such “boy’s comics” as Hotspur and Hornet. While they were all left behin upon emigration, to this day, my parents often bring me back from their trips to Scotland the Christmas annuals, especially for the Beano and the Broons/Wullie, and even an old Angus Og cel. But I can truthfully say that I have never bought a comic in my entire US-resident life. Not from principle exactly, just from their being so different from what I was used to you, both in terms of format (the British ones I mention were mostly weekly anthologies of 8 to 10 recurring strips, all in 1- or 2-page mostly-unserialized stories) and in terms of subject/tone (I never cottoned to the dominant US genre of superheroes, instead of daffy humor). And those first years living in this country were a boy’s prime comic-geek years.
Continue reading

August 1, 2005 Posted by | Christopher Nolan, Comics | Leave a comment