← Back to Reviews
 

Grizzly Man



Grizzly Man


Warning: Potential spoilers!

This documentary seems to be as notorious as it is critically acclaimed, because everyone I know has come to me at some point over the past four months asking, "Hey, have you seen Grizzly Man?", adding a slightly mysterious and foreboding emphasis on the title as one would when speaking of ghosts or something. In fact, a friend of mine was so adamant about the film's potency that for three weeks straight, all he seemed to talk about was Grizzly Man and how strangely infectious and enthralling it was. As a result, I began to look into the film, what it was about, and what the critics were saying; and decided quickly that I needed to see it.

I saw it last Sunday, finally. I might have written a review then, but my brain needed time to digest the material, mull it over, and spit out some kind of thoughtful response. It's not every day that a guy like Timothy Treadwell steps into your television set, serenades you for two hours with his psyche, and then leaves you guessing after the meaning of it all.

***

Simply put, Werner Herzog presents us with a small selection of footage taken from 100+ hours filmed by Timothy Treadwell, a nature activist and amateur filmmaker who fashioned himself a freedom fighter for wild grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness. He spent the summer months there among the bears over a period of 13 years, documenting their habitat and living practices, and increasingly acclimating himself to the wildlife (thus separating himself from the rest of the world). As a result, Treadwell - along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard - was mauled to death and eaten by a grizzly bear in October of 2003.

Bears
What initially appears to be a documentary about a driven and courageous individual doing admirable work quickly fades. It doesn't take long to realize that Treadwell's psyche, which seems to unfold as the film does, is Herzog's real focus.

The man is quite obviously disturbed, confused, and nearly broken - but it's all hidden under a veil of confidence and security. In his archive footage, Treadwell - who had previously struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and lack of direction for many years - claims to have found purpose and solitude as "friend" and "protector" of the Alaskan grizzlies. To him, there existed an internal capacity for affection and understanding among the bears, and he sought to share something of a relationship with them. He saw purity and peace in the animals, and stated voraciously that wild bears were largely misunderstood and inappropriately taken for mongrels. Treadwell's mission, then, was to "increase bear awareness," as he put it - something which on some levels, whether he knew it or not, he achieved.

But beyond what Treadwell intended to do by his endeavors, he managed to capture a glimpse into himself. Herzog explains that for Treadwell, the camera became a "confessional" of sorts, and I would agree. The recorded footage as evidence notwithstanding, a camera itself is in many ways an audience, and it was his intention to make use of it all along. In the open wilderness, where no one was watching and there was nothing much to do, it seems that Treadwell couldn't help but unravel himself for reflection, and the camera was always rolling. And yet, it's quite obvious that the man - who often fancied himself as something of a public figure - was apt to turning himself into a character. The glimpse that we get to see of Treadwell on camera is sullied by his own insecurities (and his penchant for playing a role, as a result); so in the end, the true, honest-to-God Timothy Treadwell either doesn't exist, is hiding, or is gone forever.

Foxes
There are two moments when the real Treadwell, though briefly and in the heat of anger or exasperation, appears to poke through. The first is when he's playing with the foxes, and one of them swipes his ball cap and runs off. The camera is rolling, but Treadwell seems to forget that fact, and instead preoccupies himself with bumbling through the woods after a thief (and in the process, becomes irrationally frantic). The other is late in his life, after he's taken to paranoia and begun to believe that the grizzly bears - despite the fact that they live on a protected wildlife reserve - are in danger of poachers and indifferent politicians. Treadwell becomes livid, spouting F-bombs like they're confetti and generally losing composure over himself and even logic. But we all do that sometimes under the strain of an intense emotion.

***

What I'm getting at, ultimately, is that in Herzog's documentary, there seems to be an indictment that Treadwell was a certifiable loon, and that it got him killed. And I'm not here to dispute that. But what we're given in two hours is not Timothy Treadwell: The Complete Biography. Out of 100+ hours of footage, we're only given clips that make up just over one hour of footage, sprinkled with Herzog's commentary. His so-called friends provide testimonials to his character, but there is no evidence of a relationship shared besides the occasional, “oh, I did this or that for him.” The ex-girlfriend/co-founder of Grizzly People was the only one that recounted a specific instance in which she interacted with Treadwell, and there was nothing suspect about it. In fact, I got the distinct impression that she was exploiting the attention by acting it up herself. She was much like Treadwell in the way she expressed herself - visibly putting on a show because she craves attention, no matter how silly or contrived she has to be. And Herzog wasn’t helping: he asked her and others loaded questions like, “Do you feel like his widow?”

Fight
And where were Treadwell’s parents? Sure, Herzog included them, but it didn’t seem like they were about to talk candidly about their son or his condition. They explained his childhood and early adulthood about like I expected: good kid, smart, great athlete - at some point, for some inexplicable reason, turns to drugs and alcohol abuse. These things don’t just happen overnight. I’m betting his parents are responsible for more than a few of his problems, but the film can’t help but pretend (because the information just isn’t there) that Treadwell’s instability was a product of his own demons.

The footage of Treadwell himself is enthralling, and I think that’s what initially drew Herzog into making the documentary. But at some point, as is human nature to do so, Herzog began to draw conclusions about what he saw on those tapes, and in doing so turn Timothy Treadwell into more a subject, and less a human being. His conclusions may not be unfounded, but given the fact that a viewer who knows nothing about Treadwell prior to seeing the film only gets to experience his life through two hours of footage and interviews (roughly 8% of the whole story, probably) and Herzog’s critical lens, it’s quite also not unfounded to say that Treadwell isn’t being afforded a proper legacy. I find it ironic that despite Herzog’s evaluation of the man (which as the filmmaker, gives him somewhat of a “bully pulpit” on which to stand), Herzog still appeals to the tragedy of Treadwell’s life and death. But while he seems to find more tragedy in Treadwell’s unfortunate spiral into delusion and misdirection, I find more tragedy in the fact that for most people who know about and will remember Timothy Treadwell, their knowledge will have come solely from seeing Grizzly Man. Everyone I know who has seen the film remarks quite often about Treadwell in a “oh-look-at-the-crazy-person-on-the-TV, man-is-he-a-riot” kind of way, and that bothers me. I can’t fault Herzog for drawing his own conclusions on the material, because that’s just what we do - but at the same time, I also can’t help but wonder what he meant to accomplish with this film. Does he want Treadwell to be an example to others? (“Don’t let yourself get like this!”) What does it matter what Werner Herzog thinks about Timothy Treadwell? Was there an injustice to be corrected here? What’s the point or purpose in proving a dead man wrong? Is this the way Treadwell wanted to be remembered?

Filming
In one particular segment of the film, Herzog really hit something on the head. Just as Treadwell steps away from the camera without turning it off, it begins to record simply the plant life behind him blowing in the wind. At that moment, Herzog remarks that what Treadwell failed to notice - having been caught up in his own character - was the life and story that was already there in the wilderness, had he only taken himself out of the spotlight for a moment to see it. To me, that speaks volumes as well about Treadwell’s inability to step out of himself and evaluate his well-being as an outsider would, which might have been the right step toward finally getting his head on straight. But it doesn't matter. Because while I wholeheartedly agree with Herzog’s assessment, I also find the comment strangely ironic: perhaps the best Herzog could have done for Timothy Treadwell was release the 100+ hours of footage he shot, and let it speak for itself. It didn’t need the testimonials, or the added emphasis of Herzog listening to Treadwell’s death, or the macabre details of his demise, or the scathing commentary on the man’s life and practices. He was most certainly misguided and anguished, it’s true. But I say let the footage lead viewers to that conclusion, not Werner Herzog.

***

Don’t let me fool you. While I differ with Herzog on many points, I still respect him as a filmmaker and intellectual. I enjoyed Grizzly Man, and I’m not about to claim that it was an attempt at exploitation or reproach. But I think perhaps it should not be forgotten that Timothy Treadwell was a real man with real problems. At times, Herzog (having the mind of a storyteller) unfairly conceptualized Treadwell, when in reality there was no logical design or meaning to him at all. He was the way he was, and that’s it. It’s easy to want to pick him apart, to try to understand him, and to ruminate about how he might have been saved. But Timothy Treadwell is deceased; and with respect to the dead, the proper legacy - I would argue - is not Herzog’s evaluations, but Treadwell’s footage itself, and the memories of those who knew him.



***