About a Bear

Last days: Timothy Treadwell in 'Grizzly Man'
Lions Gate

Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog's latest documentary, Grizzly Man, was insane. But he was mad in a way that has seemed rational to Westerners for centuries. Born in suburban New Jersey, Treadwell fled west to California at 19 to reinvent himself; when that project didn't take, he moved on to the last frontier, Alaska. Millions before him tread the same path (yes, "Treadwell" was a chosen moniker), seeking both riches and actualization. A self-proclaimed "bear savior," Treadwell discovered an "authentic" self by living alongside grizzlies in the "wild": That equation--wild equals authentic--goes back to Rousseau via John Muir and Ed Abbey. Treadwell's story rides the failing engines of Romanticism and Manifest Destiny to their dead ends.

Which makes Treadwell a perfect subject for Herzog, who has long been accused of myth-mongering in the same stew. The current Film Comment describes Herzog's typical outcast heroes as rejecting consumerist, rational human society "in favor of a marginalized existence redeemed by primal contact with [irrational] nature." The critic, Paul Arthur, implies that Grizzly Man marks a departure for the "neo-romantic" director. Certainly Herzog appears eager to distance himself from Treadwell, who videotaped himself talking to, swimming with, and even petting enormous brown bears. Herzog speaks repeatedly of "borderlines" and the dangers of crossing them. But to my mind, Grizzly Man is less a right turn for the German director than the destination of a gradual, slower curve.

From Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to The White Diamond, Herzog's films have offered shifting visions of the South American jungle. Where it was first shown as a chaotic mystery (indeed, as a chaos with which the hero merged), it became for Fitzcarraldo a challengingly foreign order with which he had to compromise. In The White Diamond, Herzog's other new documentary, about a scientist testing an airship in the Guyanan rain forest, the jungle is a specific environment where certain people go about lives at once practical and spiritual. Footage of the fishlike contraption floating above the canopy is mixed with that of swifts darting around a majestic waterfall: Levity (i.e., soul flight) happens here not so much through mere "contact" with nature, but because of human invention/intervention with nature, whether via science or story.

In other words, people "redeem" themselves through imagination (which reliably churns the rational and the irrational--as does a good movie). Herzog interviews the locals, along with the crazy white scientist, and finds a complex truth: Where the European may look for something redemptive in the exotic "wild," the South American rain forest denizen may look for the same in exotic "civilization." (One man seeks reunion with his family somewhere in Spain, another moonwalks flawlessly on cliff rock.) There's surely a power differential at work: The airship will allow exploration (or exploitation) of the canopy in the service of developing new pharmaceuticals for the West; the locals may wish for economic redemption. But in the end, the film rebuffs any viewer's need to plunder wonder from this jungle and its people. Herzog leaves you staring at your story of redemption, whatever it is.

The White Diamond is a gentle corrective: Its snappiest scene rebounds on Herzog (who may deliberately make himself look stupid). When a man demonstrates how to view the waterfall through a raindrop, the director condescendingly asks: "Mark Anthony, do you see an entire universe in that drop of water?" The man answers, "I can't hear what you say for the thunder that you are." Grizzly Man sets forth a more explicit critique of the West's idealization of wildness. In part the harsher tone is due to the tragedy at the heart of the story: After 13 summers living near the bears, and five summers videotaping them, Treadwell was killed by a grizzly in 2003. His girlfriend Amie Huguenard died with him.

Grizzly Man is fashioned of footage from Treadwell's cache, interviews with supporting players, and Herzog's increasingly agitated commentary. Treadwell's tapes do provide startlingly close looks at the brown bears: their escalating fights, their curious exploration, their racing play. In one shot, a bear begins to challenge Treadwell, who barks, "Don't you do that!" (He then croons, "I love you, I love you, I love you. I'm sorry!") For a time, Herzog defends the man on this basis: that he filmed wildlife as it is rarely filmed, not only intimately, but in interaction with humans. (A native Alaskan questions the "wildness" of Treadwell's animals, habituated to him as they were.)

The movie spirals inward, moving from the more inane criticism ("He got what he deserved") to Herzog's own unease ("I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature"). Herzog gradually digs beneath Treadwell's cuddly public persona, unearthing his past as a would-be actor, revealing his paranoid viciousness. (Treadwell: "Animals rule! Fuck you, Park Service! I beat you! I beat you!" Herzog: "Here he crosses a line.") Giddy and passionate, Treadwell comes off like a cross between Kurt Cobain and Carson Kressley. There's that undercurrent of victimization--and the search for an avenue wide enough to express aggression and gentleness. Treadwell wanted, notes one colleague, "to mutate into a wild animal." Cobain and Treadwell sought and defended authenticity--which they didn't think they could find in "normal" human society. At the same time, they were both performers.

Herzog, ridiculously, commands Treadwell's former lover never to listen to a tape of Treadwell and Huguenard's last moments: I love how resolutely the director exposes his own biases. But maintaining oppositions of masculine/feminine, wild/domestic, and authentic/compromised is not going to solve this puzzle. Huguenard fought that grizzly with a fry pan. Treadwell's arrogant vulnerability led to the death of his lover and one of his beloved bears. The "wild" spaces he wandered are managed preserves. The line Treadwell crossed was in living a lie--that nature has long been separated from humanity, and that redemption (particularly for men, in their "essential" physicality) can be achieved by remerging with the wild. Treadwell did not take seriously the ways in which we are inextricably connected (through the food chain, for example): He did not see (his) nature for believing in it. Herzog presents that lingering lie as a curse and a thing of beauty, acknowledging its attractions even as he elegantly damns it to hell.

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