DVD Review Of
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/23/06
Why is glorifying the insane and stupid an American obsession over the
last couple of decades? The documentary Grizzly Man does not attempt to
answer this query, yet it does its best to bring this tendency to its odd
apogee, and is literally unlike any other documentary film I’ve ever seen.
Coming off his participation in the great mockumentary Incident At Loch Ness, it
should not come as a surprise that German filmmaker par excellence, Werner
Herzog, would stick with the documentary format in this, his latest film. No, it
is not a nature documentary,
as most film critics, including Roger Ebert, have written, simply because it
follows a man who spent thirteen consecutive summers filming grizzlies on
an Alaskan wildlife refuge, Katmai National Park, on Kodiak Island,
but a documentary whose subject matter is a man’s flaming insanity, as it
charts the life and death of a fey, severely mentally ill blond man with a
Prince Valiant haircut, originally from Long Island, New York, named Timothy
Treadwell, who spent summers filming bears, and the rest of the year
going to schools, showing his films freely.
I get tired of books and films devoted to the worst in society- the insane, criminal, selfish, greedy, shallow, etc. While watching the tale of this supposedly reformed drug addicted alcoholic-cum-New Age weirdo, I could not help but compare his life and death to that of another deluded narcissist who perished over a decade earlier than Treadwell, also in the wilds of a Alaska- Chris McCandless, whose delusions of being one with nature led to his death in 1992, chronicled in adventure writer Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into The Wild. McCandless was another bored, spoiled, upper middle class white boy whose easy life was seen as something ‘terrible’ to deal with. So, he bummed around the country, using many aliases- including Alexander Supertramp, until he decided he would go and rough it in the Alaskan wilds, alone and ill-prepared. That he ended up starving to death in an abandoned bus made him a hero to addle-minded nature buffs, and a target of scorn to Alaska natives who respect nature, and resent twits like McCandless being seen as anything other than the fools they were. Yet, Treadwell was worse, and his end even more ignominious, because not only did he get himself killed and eaten by a bear, but also his 37 year old blond girlfriend- Amy Huguenard. And, when he died in 2003, Treadwell was 46 years old, while McCandless was only half that age upon his death in 1992.
Yet, there is no denying Treadwell, was mentally unhinged, even as Herzog rapturously declaims his filmic abilities with a camera, and imbues the most banal shots with an intent and skill that just is not there onscreen, lacking any real style. Herzog must have had to tell himself this to justify his fascination with Treadwell’s bizarre antics. The documentary starts with shots from Treadwell’s hundred or so hours of video, shot over the last five years of his summer expeditions, then delves right into the grisly (pun intended) facts surrounding his and Huguenard’s deaths. The film sketches a cogent portrait of human psychosis. Although there is nature in Treadwell’s footage, the shots are really all about him. His egomania dominates every shot he filmed. Huguenard, and other women he squired on location (we learn in a quick comment by Herzog), are almost never seen on film. Treadwell was trying to craft his own personal mythos for some Discovery Channel specials- that he was a lone protector of wildlife from poachers, corporate greed, and the tourist industry. Yet, these were delusions. The best example of this comes late in the film where some other nature filmmakers are warding off a bear with stones, and spot Treadwell in the background. They leave some innocuous smiley faces and greetings for him, which he distorts into near Satanic death threats. Other signs of his delusions come from his coprophilia- filming his touching of warm bear shit as if holy, and filming bears fighting, then being delighted when one of them shits mid-combat, or when he films a sleeping bumblebee he presumes dead and laments, and his almost Tourettes Syndrome-like epithet laced rants against the Wildlife Service and all of humanity.
Treadwell’s whole life was a weird sham, though, from his teen
failures, to his criminal history, drug addiction, overdose, alcoholism,
failures as an actor, and his assuming many different aliases- his real surname
was Dexter, and claims about his past. We learn, from a former friend, that
Treadwell had claimed he was from a small Australian outback town, faked an
Aussie accent, and even researched the town, just to fool others. He also
appeared on the dating show Love Connection, was supposedly second choice
to play the Woody Harrelson character on the sitcom Cheers, and when he
lost the role his life fell apart. For fun he used to go to courthouses to watch
criminals sentenced. Knowing this, and that throughout his films, Treadwell is
sporting an over the top gay accent, is it unreasonable to assume even that and
his much vaunted eco-sensitivity were cons? In one scene he even claims he
wishes he were gay. Was this whole bizarre life simply his way of gaining fame?
After all, he got a book, The Grizzly Maze, by Nick Jans, this
documentary, and reputedly a big budget Hollywood film on his life in the works,
with Leonardo DiCaprio- who reputedly financed Treadwell’s expeditions, and
his organization: www.grizzlypeople.com-
set to play him.
These facts undermine the film’s thesis that there was some duality or depth to Treadwell. Herzog loves to explore the flute vagaries of the human psyche, but Treadwell was simply a cipher with delusions of grandeur. His ‘protection’ of the grizzlies was his own fear of, and desire to escape, the real world. That Treadwell was pathetically disturbed, immature, shallow, solipsistic, egotistic, manic depressive, and passive-aggressive is beyond doubt, but why he was deserving of this film one can only wonder. What of true heroes? People who do real science, and are not frustrated wannabes who are desperate to do anything to be a ‘star’? Treadwell broke federal laws to make his films, lived in his own puerile Michael Jacksonian world, and was a hypocrite. He projected human attributes onto the grizzlies he loved, yet never did an actual thing to help the bears, for poaching, we learn, is almost nonexistent on Kodiak Island. He also apparently learned almost nothing of their true nature- for while the local bears were used to humans, the bear that killed him was likely a bear from the interior, Bear 141, an old 28, and hungry- the sort that go after the relatively easy prey that humans are. Ironically, in his deluded zeal to ‘protect’ the grizzlies he ended up getting two of them killed when Park Rangers came to clean up his remains, and filled four garbage bags full of human remains from the bear’s innards.
Treadwell had an audio recording of his and Huguenard’s death, and Herzog listens to it on camera, but does not use it in the film. This is a very poor choice, not made out of taste, but to not show the real devastating impact Treadwell’s stupidity had on his and her life. Many complain Hollywood fiction films never show the consequences of onscreen violence, but for a documentary to not let us have even a few seconds of the sounds of the attack undermines the film’s documentary credibility, making it New Age agitprop that glorifies insanity, and hides the dangers of psychotic belief systems behind clichés like what Herzog tells one of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriends: ‘You must never listen to this. You should not keep it. You should destroy it because it will be like the white elephant in your room all your life.’ Herzog also brings the film down in other moments, with banal statements comparing Treadwell to Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, Treadwell’s soul to the nearby glaciers, or stating that Treadwell ‘battled demons.’ This is manifest. In another scene we learn that Huguenard and Treadwell were splitting up before they were killed, and Herzog asks the dumbest question, as to why would she stay with him. As if she had any real choice in the wild? We also learn that the audio of their death reveals she could have escaped but chose to stay and try to help him. Herzog sees this and her as mysteries in the film, for she appears only twice in the films, again reinforcing his trying to cull this image of himself as a brave loner.
A healthy respect, borne of fear, is the natural state between man and
the undomesticated beasts of the world. Treadwell violated that repeatedly, and
this gives the viewer some unexpectedly funny moments, in the vein of that old Mary
Tyler Moore Show episode where the tv clown dies and Mary cannot stop
laughing. We consistently are juxtaposed with Treadwell’s fey antics of
annoying the bears, then cutting to his somber friends and family lamenting his
being eaten by them, or where some New Age pals take his ashes to be spread in
the wild, and it turns out his ashes are not in an urn, but a used tobacco tin.
In some ways, this film is a real life Blair Witch Project, but the film
it most resembles is another documentary, The Mayor Of Sunset Strip,
which chronicled the life of another mentally ill freak who destroyed his life,
yet is still alive and suffering. At least Treadwell’s out of his palpable
Still, I wish there would be more attention paid to truly unique, worthwhile individuals, because for every Timothy Treadwell, or Chris McCandless, there is a Dick Proenekke- a man who also went to live in the Alaskan wilds, but did so with years of experience behind him, and survived into his eighties. He died the same year Treadwell did, and Treadwell found Alaska around the same time McCandless did. I don’t think this has any significance, but if the three men are to be tied together for their destinations, shouldn’t the most admirable of the lot get his due, as well? As another note of trivia, just three days after Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed (October 5th, 2003) Las Vegas entertainer Roy Horn was mauled by his tiger.
As for the DVD features, there is only a trailer and a fifty minute documentary on the film scoring sessions that really illuminates nothing. That Herzog did not even record a commentary is too bad, for it would have been fascinating to hear if he’s had time to reflect on Treadwell, and if he has a lesser opinion of the man’s stupidity now. Still, for all its flaws, it is a compelling portrait of insanity, even as it sometimes celebrates it. I would have cut the film thirty to forty of its one hour forty-five minute running time, because much gets repetitive. This is a film worth seeing, but only if you bear in mind the wisdom of one of the helicopter pilots who flew home the duo’s remains. He calls Treadwell a retard, then states, ‘He was treating them like people in bear costumes. He got what he deserved,’ a statement echoed by a Native American Kodiak Island museum director, who says, ‘My people have been living nicely with bears for thousands of years and we know enough to stay out of each other’s way.’
That Treadwell did not only begs the question I opened this review with- why does Herzog feel this man’s stupidity and idiocy are worth glorifying in film? Especially when he clearly believes Treadwell’s philosophy is wrong. Where Treadwell sees cuddly things he’d die for, cooing he loves them, even as he actually taunts the bears, as if they were stuffed animals, like the teddy bear he sleeps with in his tent, Herzog sees indifferent creatures who could make a meal out of you at any time, and we see a well meaning idiot, the New Age nuts that revere him, and a film that is perversely fascinating. Ah, the answer!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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