Claws and Effect

Bad news bears: Obsession meets feral reality in Werner Herzog's frontier-disaster doc

Closing out this summer's Werner Herzog hat trick, Grizzly Man is something of an anomaly in the man's encyclopedic nonfiction corpus. Formally speaking, Herzog has always been the most guileless documentarian to climb an erupting volcano—there has never been a pretense of fly-on-the-wall objectivity, talking heads are rare, the political is almost always flipped for the absurdly epic personal. By the same token, he's been a fundamentally resourceful experience-maker, preferring firsthand fortune and catastrophe but never above employing news footage, archival materials, others' films, even clips from his own features and opera productions. All the same, Grizzly Man must be seen as Herzog's first authentic found-footage movie—the majority of it is videotape shot by Timothy Treadwell, the amateur conservationist and budding tele-zoologist who was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear in 2003. Herzog admits admiration for Treadwell's camerawork, considering him more of a compatriot than a subject, but the film is nevertheless the work of two men, two competing visions, two antithetical agendas.

Many of Herzog's essays have a primal elementalism to them that suggests they could've happened in a pre-electronic- mediated world, or even within a pre-cinematic mind-set. Not so with Grizzly Man—the dirty fingerprints of celebrity hunger, 24-7 broadcasting, and nature-as-commodity market-think are all over it. Which is precisely why the stubbornly renegade Herzog is the righteous choice for reconsidering Treadwell's dismaying odyssey to the frontier. A failed actor, ex-surfer, and soul-searching recovered drinker, Treadwell found satisfaction and meaning establishing a grassroots preservationist organization on behalf of Alaskan grizzlies and, most vitally, spending 13 long summers living unarmed among the animals in Katmai National Park. He began recording his adventures in 1999, shooting the beasts hunting salmon and mating and filming himself for hundreds of hours talking about the bears to the camera as if he were in fact taping a television show.

Treadwell's shade-wearing, sandy-haired dude persona, complete with high-pitched kid-show delivery and fierce Rousseauian idealism, is extraordinarily compelling, particularly when one of the 800-pound animals he so childishly praises creeps up behind him on camera. His post-game wrap-up after a hair-raising battle between male bears is priceless, and his genuine determination to stand off when bears get too close is mesmerizing. But it's not merely the disconnect between Treadwell's Mutual of Omaha na and the potential for feral disaster that gains momentum as Herzog's film progresses; it's clear that Treadwell, alone and self-sanctifying in the woods with only a lens to talk to, identifies more with the bears than with the society that had in effect exiled him. His way of mooning over the beasts, giving them preschool names like Mr. Chocolate and relentlessly declaring that he's "protecting" them, suggests acres about why Treadwell abandoned the company of people. Raving paranoia, against the government, tourists, would-be poachers, other activists, and anyone else in reach, seems inevitable. Meanwhile, his mission in the wilderness is persistently constructed as a Discovery Channel series, one that was never green-lit but got filmed all the same, often beautifully. Grizzly Man is many things, including a much more resonant and complex portrait of TV-poisoned narcissism than Tarnation.

Wild at heart
photo: Timothy Treadwell
Wild at heart

For many the question remains about how Treadwell's eventual death should be regarded—as a tragedy, as a fool's fate, or as comeuppance for daring to humanize wild predators and habituating them to human presence. Herzog's perspective is, of course, scrupulously nonjudgmental. He doesn't share with us the audio of the killing (in which Treadwell's girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was also torn up and eaten), but instead grimly listens to it on camera, and then instructs a surviving ex-girlfriend to destroy the tape immediately. Mysteries, like The White Diamond's unseen waterfall caverns or the Aborigine totem that would end the world if glimpsed by a white man in Where the Green Ants Dream, are worth keeping secret.

Herzog and Treadwell occupy polar camps; fascinated though he may be by the beauty and hellfire of natural forces, Herzog is no naturalist. His career project reflects a bitterly pragmatic view of nature as ravenous, amoral, and empty-headed—hardly a viewpoint sellable to cable-TV-watching schoolkids. Herzog's strong-armed interventions in Grizzly Man say as much, cutting off Treadwell's original sound in one close-up of a bear: "I must disagree with Treadwell here," he grumbles, launching into a diatribe about the essential inhumanity of wild animals. "I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature." Regarding the bears as deus ex machina within Treadwell's bizarre saga, Herzog asserts again one of modern moviedom's wisest, plainest humanistic sensibilities, sympathetic to man's never ending war with the planet but aware that the struggle will always draw ambiguous blood. Treadwell is simply another lost foot soldier, killed in the ongoing collision between human obsession and untamed reality.

 
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