Exit, Pursued By Bear

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.

12 Responses

  1. Grist for a Grizzly endWhat
    Grist for a Grizzly end

    What better way for Treadwell to die?
    (Like Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of Daytona…)

    When you are passionately doing what you love and die doing it, there can be no better ending.

    His girlfriend may have felt differently (and her family obviously did) but she chose him and he chose the grizzlies.

    Frankly, I think it is fitting although I know many will scoff and say, “it was bound to happen” or “what a goofball!” I can say, what a life he lived on the edge and being there with what he loved. Nope, there is no better ending.

    I hope I can catch the film. I know I will love it.

    Now, I wonder if I will prick my finger while beading and die of an infection? Hah!

  2. I agree with you SooZen.
    I agree with you SooZen. There are worse ways to go than to be eaten by the creatures you love. That sounds like I’m being facetious but I really mean it.

    Oh, shit . . . my cats are eyeing me suspiciously . . .

  3. Fitzcarraldo & the
    Fitzcarraldo & the bears

    Fitzcarraldo was a bit mad, and the director is the same. Great film and also great back-stage documentary.

    Fitzcarraldo and also Aguirre are something near white-skin-vegetal hidden-water jungle-horror films. Nature’s about to explode somewhere in an ominous way, and you wonder if there is really something else (it can also be all dreams, too).

    I never read Thoreau.

  4. Escaping to the WoodsEscaping
    Escaping to the Woods

    Escaping to the woods or any other remote place in nature is an amazingly inspiring and at the same time soothing experience. I often spend time in the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Far from anything like electricity, showers or roads, and from any usual place and circumstance, life takes on a completely different rhythm and opens up to an increased awareness of the very moment.

    There are some tiny huts here in the Black Forest in and around which we often spend weeks in the summer, and there also is one special place where I love to escape to from time to time (sometimes just for a day, sometimes for a whole weekend, taking only a sleeping bag, a pen, a notebook and some food with me). It’s an exposed rock that grows out of a steep forest slope like a cliff, overlooking the forest valleys and further west towards the plain of the Rhine and France. Its access is hidden, as it is located far from any paths, accessible only through rocky forest slopes and thicket.

    It’s a lonely place. And it’s a beautiful place, moss-grown and drenched with light and wind and the scent of sunwarmed rocks… beautiful and lonely, and somehow sublime in its exposure. Just to be there, to mentally soar up into the vast expanse of sky and distance and potential, to sleep on moss among blueberries and crippled birches and to listen to the wind and be enveloped by the change of light is enough to inspire and re-vitalize me; enough to open the mind to impressions and expressions that seem brand new and quivering with potential, and, through the undulating alternation of phases of blissfull emptiness and high-wired inspiration, to put me back into balance after upchurning and straining times .

    (When I grow up, I want to be a hermit. I want to live in a hut high up on a cliff, close to the sky, overlooking mountains and sea. I wanna grin blissfully and madly, greet the sun and the night with a grimy groan and dervishdance along the edge. I wanna run naked, grow a long beard and some light, and dine on puddles, herbs and manna falling from the sky…. —- but wait. Something’s wrong with that image. Is it the cliff, the groaning, the manna? Hm. I just can’t think of it. The hut, the grin, the herbs? Hm, again. Let me think…. )

    Anyway, thanks for bringing “Grizzly Man” to my attention, Levi.
    I think it’s a film I want to see.

  5. When I was in high school, I
    When I was in high school, I thought it would be great to live in the woods, in a cabin, like Thoreau. I imagined growing my own food and everything. Now, I don’t even enjoy camping that much. Oh, one or two nights is okay, but I like air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter, electricity, running water, the whole nine yards. Bears? I don’t think so.

  6. If a Bear Bites in the WoodsI
    If a Bear Bites in the Woods

    I too watched Grizzly Man. In fact, I’d been waiting to see it ever since I first saw the commercials advertising it. Finally, I got to sit through it either last Friday night or Saturday night, one of the two.

    I wasn’t really interested in the bears & foxes so much as I was interested in the fascinating car wreck that was Timothy Treadwell. I remember hearing something about two people being eaten by a bear in the woods, but I didn’t realize it was the same person until I saw the documentary.

    Speaking of foxes, wasn’t that fox he was stroking dead? It stressed me out to look at that scene because not only was the fox dead, but I’m pretty sure it was just the upper torso and front paws lying there in the grass. BAH-ARF! It was like the narrator stated, Treadwell was detached from reality when it came to natural order. He chose not to recognize the murder, chaos and death part of nature. He chose to see innocence where there was none.

    I could clearly see the addict part of Treadwell. The egotist and the reckless child that acted counter-intuitively. In the footage from his last day, he keeps swinging from side to side and looking around like he’s nervous that something is going to sneak up from behind. He seems to be at his most high-strung in that final sequence. They say that death always announces itself. He must have gotten the memo stating that it was no longer just a test. Besides, remember that Born Free woman? Eaten. Yummy too, or so the rumor went.

    I would never hang out with a slightly whiney cat like Treadwell…without making a bitter enemy of him, but the footage he shot gave me a fascinating look at not only the bear maze animals, but at the human animal as well.

    Overall, It had a nice beat and I could really dance to it. I give it a 10!

  7. bears used and betrayedThe
    bears used and betrayed

    The documentary was very good, exciting, beautiful and interesting. But the asshole did nothing but disservice to the bears. He loved them like the sinister stalker not for their sakes but his own.

  8. oh, anemone.what a beautiful
    oh, anemone.
    what a beautiful entry.
    if such a thing weren’t so obviously not in keeping with what you wrote, i’d beg you to engrave it all on that rock in the middle of the lonely forest.

    imagine the reader coming across it one day. well, at least i imagine myself coming across it!

  9. bill, i prefer it bearless as
    bill, i prefer it bearless as well – but other nightly visitors at my sleeping bag, such as a huge swan (these beasts can get wild, i tell ya!), a herd of cows (you wouldn’t imagine how big they look if your lie right underneath their curious eyes and ruminant mouths), a lynx (that one was quite scary), a dormouse family (running back and forth on my sleeping bag and head), and various other small insect-like creatures, have made for some interesting encounters and stories so far.

    judih, i love the imagination of the moment being engraved in stone to face time for a long long duration before withdrawing its essence into the rock once again… or being carved into wood to change with the metamorphosis of growth. yes! yet when you come across that rock or any other place like that one day, you will feel it all and more being engraved in your very presence there, and in the presence of the place, and in how they both intermingle and touch the vast expanse of mind and sky and more. i hope i’ll be there then, too!

  10. That’s an interesting
    That’s an interesting viewpoint on the subject that I hadn’t thought of.

  11. I’ve got to say this!I’m
    I’ve got to say this!

    I’m sorry. You can all think I’m weird, but Levi’s eloquent description of the death scene grows on me with each repeated reading . . .

    “found a surly older grizzly bear gnawing on their scattered rib cages and limbs.”

    Oh, man.

  12. As much as many of us try, it
    As much as many of us try, it is impossible to adequately describe solitude in the midst of nature. It is an unbelievably humbling experience. At times it can be intoxicating. No wonder good judgement and Treadwell parted ways. I lived for over two years alone in a beat up old fishing cabin next to a river. My first fall in the cabin was wondrous. I had to learn the sounds of each creature on the leaves. I wasn’t prepared for very small animals to sound very large while walking on the dry leaves. It took some time to tame my fears. And, yeah, being naked outside is a good thing. It was a surprise to (re)discover my place in this world — a very small but alive place.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!