Grizzly Man, a new documentary film by Werner Herzog, is an astounding study of humanity and nature. It was pasted together from videotape left behind by Timothy Treadwell, a somewhat goofy and hippy-dippy outdoorsman who spent thirteen summers in a row communing with grizzly bears in Alaska.
Treadwell was not trained or licensed to interact with these dangerous animals, and he freely admitted that he would not be able to defend himself if a bear decided to kill him for food. He worked hard to establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect with the thousand-pound carnivores that surrounded him, and this worked for many years but was doomed in the end; in October 2003 a pilot flew into the area where Treadwell and his girlfriend had been camping and found a surly older grizzly bear gnawing on their scattered rib cages and limbs. Herzog put this film together as a tribute to Treadwell’s life’s work.
It’s amazing to see a blond mop-topped skinny man wearing no protection over his t-shirt and jeans as he cavorts with grizzly bears, touches their noses, rassles with the cubs. Sometimes the bears make threatening moves towards him, and he is careful to stand his ground, explaining to the camera that they are testing him for fear or weakness.
Treadwell knows he loves the bears more than they love him, but he can’t help his obsession. The camera often finds him swooning with ecstasy, rapt in loud spontaneous joy, riffing excitedly about his flowing thoughts. He almost never appears depressed on camera, though he cries over a bumblebee that he believes dead, until he sees that the bumblebee is just sleeping. The footage feels alive and refreshing because our guide is an utter unprofessional, not a park ranger or a scientist but a manic nature freak with a videocamera.
The visuals are beautiful. Treadwell sits in the grass and caresses a wild fox the way you’d pet a cat. He basks in the sun, and in one wonderful moment he chases a bear cub who stole his hat at a high speed through the brush and suddenly arrives at the bear’s den, a large hole in the ground. This definitely beats Disney.
In the film’s most ominous scene, shot just before Treadwell’s death, he sits alongside a stream where a large grizzly with a lean and hungry look rummages for fish. Treadwell explains that this bear is older and has a harder time finding food, which makes him more likely to attack a human than the others. The evidence shows that this is the bear that did eventually kill Treadwell and his girlfriend (whose family has opted not to be involved with this film or to seek publicity).
Treadwell was moderately famous for his bear affinity while he was alive. He wrote a book, cofounded a non-profit and appeared on the David Letterman show (the segment is included in this film; Letterman asks Treadwell whether or not a bear will eventually eat him, and the crowd laughs).
Over and over, the real-life character onscreen made me think of Henry David Thoreau, another complex man who could only find joy in the isolation of the woods. Not that I think Thoreau wouldn’t have called Treadwell a fool; Thoreau lived in the wilderness but he didn’t intend to die there.
The film also called to mind another literary hermit who escaped to the woods, Jack Kerouac, who spent long periods in meditation and alcoholic recovery on mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains. Treadwell is also a recovering alcoholic, and this seems to explain something about his passionate relationship with the outdoors (it is his salvation) as well, perhaps, about his reckless fatalism and need for the adrenalin of danger.
Werner Herzog’s treatment of this material is respectful and artistic. A Kuro5hin article about this film mentions that the theme of this film echoes that of an earlier Herzog film, Fitzcarraldo which I haven’t seen but plan to.
Aside from its fascinating human story, Grizzly Man also represents cinema verite taken to a new level of stark realism. As in the Blair Witch Project, the film is spliced together from videotape found at a murder scene. But in Blair Witch Project the actors didn’t really die.
I caught this film on the Discovery Channel, and I hope they will be running it again soon.