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”
It’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.
It’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.
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 in 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.
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