July 26, 2006

Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary film entitled "Grizzly Man" has been making the rounds on dvd and the Discovery Channel, and it's a stunner.

"Grizzly Man" is about Timothy Treadwell (an ultimately ironic stage name for Timothy Dexter), a Long Island boy born in 1957 who wins a diving scholarship to Bradley University, upon which he gets involved with drugs and loses his scholarship. At age 19, he moves to Los Angeles to become an actor. He never succeeds. Supposedly, he was in the running for the bartender part on "Cheers," but the part is eventually given to Woody Harrelson. Treadwell never recovers from this setback, and begins a downward spiral of drugs and alcohol.

However, around 1990, in a move reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau, Treadwell finds sobriety and spirituality by spending the first of 13 summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve, living alone with grizzly bears and filming his experiences. His stated goal was to highlight the plight of the bears and to protect them from humans. As Treadwell sheds his own humanity and tries in a sense to become a bear, the childlike fortysomething with blonde Prince Valiant surfer locks and his childhood teddy bear for a pillow names, talks to and even pets these creatures, getting closer to the bears on a regular basis than any human has ever done.

All the while, Treadwell is the star of every scene he shoots. Setting his camera on a tripod, he stands right before the bears and their heavenly setting, shooting multiple takes and constantly fixing his hair. On camera, his youthful appearance and personality are magnetic. With his high-pitched voice, supersensitive, almost feminine nature, black fatigue-style clothes and camouflage bandana, he could be Andy Dick's nuttier older brother. Having no weapons, Treadwell repeatedly acknowledges that he could be killed and eaten by the bears, but says he is prepared to do so if that is what it takes to protect them. He says that, if he is killed, he wants no harm to come to the bears.

Ironically, Treadwell eventually achieves some of the fame that eluded him in Hollywood. He gives free presentations to schoolchildren each year back in Malibu. He makes the tv talk show circuit, appearing on David Letterman and Rosie O'Donnell. He co-authors a book, and establishes the non-profit group Grizzly People to help protect the endangered bears. He comes across as a rock star, which apparently has been his dream all along.

Despite the amount of time Treadwell spends in the wild, his naivete toward the violence in the natural world is astonishing. He grieves and doesn't understand why bears sometimes kill their cubs and why wolves kill a young fox, when the answer is as simple as the food chain and scarcity. This naivete ultimately becomes Treadwell's undoing. Obviously, the bears do not realize Treadwell's conservation efforts on their behalf. In October 2003, after most of his bear pals have fattened up and headed to the hills to hibernate, one hungry newcomer eventually kills and eats Treadwell, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who had spent the last three summers with him. Treadwell's ever-present video camera was rolling during the attack, but thankfully the lens cap was in place, so the attack is not captured on video. The audio portion was working, however, and some of Treadwell's friends and family have heard it. They say it will not be released to the public, as it is way too upsetting. However, the cruel ironic thread of their deaths runs through the entire film.

After Treadwell's death, his friends and family turn his footage over to German director Werner Herzog to assemble a documentary. Herzog is a perfect choice, having directed "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," two films about obsessed adventurers in the jungles of the pre-civilized American continent. Herzog skillfully crafts and sensitively narrates a thought-provoking documentary. "Grizzly Man" is full of interesting characters, whom Herzog interviews with deliberate, Nordic precision. There is friend and former girlfriend Jewel Palovak, who now runs Grizzly People and who carries on Treadwell's legacy. In one riveting scene, she plays the audio of the bear attack on Treadwell and Huguenard for Herzog through headphones connected to a video camera. We see only part of Herzog's face, shot over his right shoulder. Facing Palovak, he shuts his eyes, grabs his forehead and the bridge of his nose, and appears to shake. Palovak is looking at him the whole time, and starts sobbing. Herzog takes off the headphones and tells her to turn off the tape, he cannot listen any more. Palovak says she has never listened to it. Herzog says she must never do so and that she must destroy the tape.

The creepiest character, fittingly, is the medical examiner who examined the remains of Treadwell and Huguenard found in the bear that, against Treadwell's wishes, was killed and cut open by Fish and Game authorities. The medical examiner morbidly re-creates the final moments of Treadwell and Huguenard based on their remains and the audio tape, complete with Huguenard's loyal attempts to stay and fight, futilely bashing the bear with a skillet as it attacks Treadwell, rather than running for her own safety as he begs her to do. It is a chilling scene, worse than any horror movie because it is true.

After viewing this film, one is left to contemplate not only the plight of the grizzly bear and the nature of wild animals, but also human nature and the entire human condition. One thinks about not only the pros and cons of technological progress and its encroachment into the natural world, but also Treadwell himself, possibly a madman, who suffered many setbacks in the human world and who naively believed that, by living among the grizzly bears, he could save them and that, in turn, the bears could save him.

Dare to see "Grizzly Man" and you will find it entertaining, fascinating, disturbing, and mind-expanding.


At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Intrigued said...

Wow- intense. How did you discover this film?

At 5:52 PM, Blogger Matt said...

I think I came upon it by accident while surfing past the Discovery Channel. It's well worth a dvd rental. P.S. I have no interest in this film, financial or otherwise, aside from telling people about something that I think they would find extremely valuable.

At 2:37 PM, Blogger Ghetufool said...

beautifully written matt. i am moved.

my deepest reverence to Timothy Treadwell. may god rest his soul in peace.


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