Lost in the Movies: Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man

Over and over again, we are told that Timothy Treadwell wanted to be a bear. That he felt closer to bears than to other people and that in nature he sought his salvation. We’re informed, by commentators and by the narrator (filmmaker Werner Herzog himself) that Treadwell would drop on all fours and growl at those who stumbled across him in Katmai National Park and Reserve in Alaska, where he spent summers living amongst the creatures, just him and his camera. Or rather, him, his camera, and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, whom he never mentioned or acknowledged in any of the footage, but who died alongside him in 2003. Herzog, who mixes Treadwell’s own footage with latter-day interviews and his own commentary, at one point listens to Treadwell’s death tape (the camera was running, with the cap on, so audio but no visuals remain of Treadwell’s butchering by a Grizzly in his tent). After a few seconds, Herzog rips off the headphones and tells Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend never, never to listen to the tape (which she acquired through a coroner) – in fact, she must throw it away. In his last moments, it appears, Treadwell was all too human and his death cries are too grisly for any member of his species to experience.

But then, the assertion that Treadwell wanted to be a bear rather than a person never quite rings true. The man we see on his own tapes is almost stubbornly human, talking and talking and talking non-stop, staging faux-action scenes in the wilderness, and most of all, endlessly sentimentalizing and humanizing the animals. Indeed, it seems more likely that Treadwell wanted the bears to be human than for himself to a bear. As one helicopter pilot (disenchanted with Treadwell to the point of saying, "He got what he deserved") puts it: "He was treating them like people in bear costumes." However insensitive the pilot is in other regards, his sentiments here ring true. Treadwell nicknames all the bears, talks to them, asserts that he and they have an understanding, fetishizes their poop, and waxes poetic about how much he's in love with all of them, all while they wander around indifferently, on occasion casting quizzical glances in his direction.

Late in the film, Herzog treats us to a terrifying sight: two Grizzlies begin to aggressively tangle on the beach, and it turns into a full-blown fight. Up on their hind legs, the beasts chomp at one another's necks, rip big tufts of fur which whirl in the air around their battling bodies, and even defecate into the sand in the heat of the action. For a good hour now, we've been watching the lumbering bears on all fours, relatively docile if rather intimidating: suddenly, standing up and in attack mode they look the size of elephants, with a ferocity that tells us they could rip apart a human being in seconds, tearing him limb from limb and devouring his flesh, as they eventually did with Treadwell. But Treadwell films one of the bears after the fight and baby-talks to it: "It's okay, buddy, I've gotten bruised over a girl too" or something to that effect. The fight is presented without commentary and it speaks for itself. Nothing Treadwell can say afterwards will do away with our impression that the Grizzlies are implacable killing machines, and that the anthropomorphic characterizations of Treadwell have nothing to do with reality.

On the other hand, Treadwell did live amongst the animals for thirteen years without incident. To do so, and to teach about them extensively as he did in school visits and TV appearances, he obviously had to know a lot about bears. So while he is silly, it's hard to imagine he was as stupid as he lets on. How much of his talk is sentimentalization, how much is wishful thinking, and how much is purely a mask, to cover his deeper fears? At times he talks about his former alcoholism, and his troubles with women (though anyone who can convince an animal-loathing lady to trek into the woods with him for several months must not have too much difficulty in that department). He used drugs in his past, nearly overdosed, and was a chronic fabricator. A former lover tells us she and he would go to criminal arraignments when they lived in L.A., and she thinks he did so to remind himself of what could happen if he gave in to his dark side. Late in the film, he's shown on-camera cursing wildlife officials who had always assisted him, in a paranoid and profanity-ridden stream-of-consciousness rant.

Indeed, both the playful silliness of his talk and the way he turns the primal beings around him into safe, understandable, lovable woodland critters seem like a depressive's (particularly a depressive child's) manic concealment of his own condition. By retreating into a world of childlike wonder and cozy comfort with the animals, he is covering up his demons, something he may be - and probably was - quite conscious of. He even tells us at one point that his life was pointless and that living with the animals saved him. But that's his end of the stick, and the feeling seldom seems reciprocated, particularly by the Grizzlies Treadwell so adores. One Grizzly in particular has a nasty bearing, and as Treadwell talks to it, Herzog speculates that Treadwell may have been photographing his own murderer and observes that the bear's "blank stare [shows] ... only the half-bored interest in food." Herzog further ruminates, "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder."

Timothy Treadwell may not have believed such, but he almost certainly feared it. And so, watching his video footage, we sense - as with other fascinating documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans - that we are at once getting a closer look and yet gazing through a glass, darkly. The Treadwell we see is by and large the one Treadwell wanted us to see. Herzog gets past this to a certain extent by playing Treadwell's outtakes and dead time, noting on the soundtrack that around and in between the staged, hyper moments in which Treadwell mimics action-film conventions (leaping out of bushes and whispering playful adventure dialogue at the camera) nature goes on, and Treadwell's camera captures this reality almost in spite of itself. The same is true of Treadwell's own "nature." In unguarded moments and even, perhaps especially, at his most theatrical, we glimpse the troubled soul behind the cheerful exterior and it causes us to wonder: in attempting to bring the bears over to his mental territory (even as he trespassed into their physical territory), was Treadwell trying to purge his own dark, beastly side?

Many will see the film's title, Grizzly Man, as a description of Treadwell. But Herzog may see it as a descriptor of not one, but two, entities with an invisible "vs." in between. Ironically then, the opposition between man and nature exists not only outside, but inside, mankind. And the film may be just as much about that as is it is about Treadwell's silent battle with external forces.

Next week: Kings and Queen (#48)

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this piece was linked.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner and was also linked on The Sun's Not Yellow.

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