2005Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog (Narrator)
f you took Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, gave him a different animal to stalk, and added a few tablespoons of schizophrenia . . . you might find a character similar to the star of Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell. Because of its fascinating centerpiece, Grizzly Man could have been worthwhile solely as an exercise in character dissection. However, the questions prompted by Treadwell’s words and actions are what propel Werner Herzog’s film into a realm of far greater complexity and universality than the generic story of a nature-lover’s grim end.
Timothy Treadwell spent the last thirteen summers of his life in remote Alaskan locales, observing the behavior of (and supposedly bonding with) his favorite animal, the Grizzly bear. For his final five trips, Treadwell brought along a video camera, which he used to self-produce nature videos starring himself and a familiar cast of animals. From a hundred hours of Timothy’s raw footage, Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre: The Wrath of God) culls a diverse and evocative selection of film that serves as the audience’s window into Timothy Treadwell’s life. Despite some shockingly amateurish work with relatives and acquaintances of Treadwell, Herzog rides the strength of his subject material to overshadow any technical shortcomings.
Um, dude, you might want to look behind you...
In the snippets released by Herzog, Timothy displays a range of behavior and emotion so wide that his personality seems fractured, as though he were trying to portray a number of different characters. When he whiningly reprimands a fox for stealing his baseball cap, he’s an endearing kook. When he spews five minutes worth of profanity-laced vitriol towards the park service (whose supposed crimes Herzog dismisses plainly as false), Treadwell inhabits a dangerous man with delusions of grandeur. When weeping over the carcass of a fox pup and tearily cursing its killers (a pack of wolves), Treadwell is the childlike empath. The one persistent behavior Timothy exhibits is his emotive expression of love for his animal friends. And Treadwell’s overwhelming passion is what provokes Herzog’s unconventional sensibility.
Rather than feigning objectivity, Herzog uses his position as narrator to give his take on Treadwell, often responding directly to Timothy’s on-camera claims. The veteran director suggests repeatedly that Timothy has shunned the human-world for an idealized notion of the animal-world. In Treadwell’s mind, Herzog explains, the animal world is one of natural kinship and loving respect. During the scene in which Treadwell is so distraught at the death of a young fox, Herzog is quick to point out how the occurrence is dissonant to Treadwell’s beliefs, and thus extraordinarily disturbing.
The bears do their post-Goldilocks slaying dance...
More important than Herzog’s psychoanalytic contributions is the simple decision to open his character up to judgment. By infusing the narration with, “I think Timothy,” and, “It seems to me,” Herzog invites the audience to be the third party in a discussion between himself and his subject. Subsequently, the film becomes extremely malleable, its scope dictated largely by audience reflection. But, through its examination of Treadwell, with certain cues from the narration, the film directs its audience to consider universal themes such as the nature of nature and the subjectivity of perception.
Perhaps the most provocative moment of the film comes when Treadwell’s camera zooms in on the face and eyes of one Grizzly. Herzog’s narration explains that for all Timothy’s insistence of his bond with and understanding of his beloved bears; upon looking within their eyes, Werner could only see the crushing “indifference of nature” (not incidentally, a recurring theme in Herzog’s feature film oeuvre). The blankness and distance of the Grizzly’s eyes confirm Herzog’s words, though the melancholy in his voice suggests he wishes he could see the world as Treadwell does.
And it is that perverse jealousy which makes the film so poignant. For despite his behavioral inconsistency, the sheer rapture of Treadwell at his most excited state suggests that, through his “delusional” world view, he had found a more fitting place in the universe than nearly any of us could imagine.
Grizzly Man’s combination of a fiercely interesting character and challenging themes leaves the viewer both entertained and thoughtful. Not your typical documentary experience, but an extremely worthwhile film.