Friday, July 26, 2019

Grizzly Man (2005)

USA, 103 minutes, documentary
Director / writer: Werner Herzog
Photography: Timothy Treadwell, Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Richard Thompson
Editor: Joe Bini
With: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Amie Huguenard, Jewel Palovak, Franc G. Fallico, Sven Haakanson Jr.

This documentary by director and writer Werner Herzog focuses on Timothy Treadwell, now famously dead, who by the evidence here deserves all our skepticism for him as an environmentalist. Treadwell, born in 1957, saw himself as "protector of the bears" but we see him as unstable, weird, and a little creepy, recording himself on videotape with full narration and even multiple takes. These many disparate scenes were shot on the annual summer sojourns he made to the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. There we see him as self-styled prancing magic elf of the forest, naming the bears (and the foxes too), playing with them, filming them, and all too often getting dangerously close to them. In the end one bear finally ate him and his girlfriend at the end of a lean summer. The sad reality shown here is that Treadwell did not appear to be right in the head somehow. He probably wasn't helping the bears either. But was he harming them?

That's one of the questions Herzog wrestles with as he attempts to pin down Treadwell's story, which is full of mystery and sadness. In dutiful documentary fashion Herzog produces a battery of science and wilderness experts who are embarrassed for and/or revolted by Treadwell. They argue him as a kind of anthropologist gone native, believing he wanted to be a bear and thought he was in some mystical fashion. In his final years the National Park Service attempted to hem in Treadwell and his activities with rules and policies. But he did survive some 13 summers living with his forest friends. The bears seem to know him and are accustomed to him. They respond to him and seem to temper their aggression. But was he harming them? Why does Herzog care and why should we?

Beyond the horrific details of this strange and evocative case, which was a brief media storm in late 2003 when Treadwell's death was discovered, and beyond all the inevitable freak show aspects of Treadwell and his generous documenting of himself, and even beyond Herzog's well-known concerns for the planet and individualism, this picture somehow feels more personal. At one point, with Treadwell giving multiple takes of a spittle-flecked rant against the Park Service, Herzog lowers the volume and says in voiceover, "His rage is almost incandescent. Artistic. The actor in his film has taken over from the filmmaker. I have seen this madness before on a film set." That's when I noticed how much Timothy Treadwell looks like Klaus Kinski.

But the appeal is even broader than that personal hook. All those experts seem to want to have an argument with Treadwell, and so do we—he means well, but his wild assertions get under the skin. They feel irrational, but close enough you want to engage and push back. We need an environmental warrior who isn't a kook and Treadwell keeps looking like a kook. He even feels dangerous sometimes, which gives some urgency to the impulse to argue and rein him in. This affects Herzog as well, who finally spells it out plain at one point, in what can be taken not only as a statement of purpose for this film, but for much of Herzog's entire career. Treadwell, he says, "seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder."

Why does Herzog care? The surprising and not-so-surprising fact is that he identifies with Treadwell as a filmmaker. He respects both Treadwell's aesthetic and his work ethic. And to finally answer the question of why we should care, the proof is in the footage. In what might be called the centerpiece of the picture there's a battle between two full-grown brown grizzly bears recorded by Treadwell from what appears to be about 20 or 30 feet away. I remind you they are beasts upwards of 800 pounds with claws six inches long and razor sharp and they can run faster than any person. The ground feels like it's shaking. It's first-rate nature documentary footage. Then there's a warmly revealing talk Treadwell gives at another point as he hikes along, about women and sex and loneliness. It may not be strictly speaking honest—we know Treadwell was something of a slippery character—but it does fall fairly into the range of documentary gold.

As does, of course, the potent irony of Treadwell's constant talk of death and danger. As does, obviously, the audio of some six minutes' duration recorded during the actual attack that killed Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. As soon as we learn the audio exists, it acquires a fearsome totemic power. Herzog chooses, mercifully, not to include it in the movie. In fact, he can't even listen to it all the way through and after he tries to he immediately counsels Jewel Palovak, a former lover of Treadwell's who owns the tape, to never listen to it and to destroy it, as if it were itself a rampaging beast. I hope she did. That leaves it up to coroner Franc G. Fallico, who has to listen to it because it's his job. More documentary gold: Fallico could only happen in a Herzog picture. It's his big moment and he plays it like an upbeat small-town TV news anchor even as he delivers the sickening, soul-deadening news. Cognitive dissonance does not even begin to describe.

Like any human being examined closely, Treadwell soon shatters into mystery and confusion. Why did he change his name from Dexter to Treadwell? What were his demons about? Did he want to die by a bear attack? Was he harming the animals? Did he have a right to be there? In other words, like most Herzog pictures, it leaves you with a lot of questions. But this picture, as difficult as it can be to watch in places, has something special, getting down to imposing fundamental questions about nature and documentaries and everything between.

1 comment:

  1. Thoughtful write-up. Treadwell's creepy kookiness was super hard to take. Other good films ab someone losing it? A Woman Under The Influence?