Phil on Film Index

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Review - Grizzly Man

“I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals…”
Timothy Treadwell: 1957 - 2003

Timothy Treadwell spent the last 13 summers of his life living among grizzly bears in a remote section of an Alaskan National Park. He saw it as his mission to protect the bears, to document their lives and to educate the wider world about the creatures he saw as his friends. This unusual lifestyle made him something of a minor celebrity, and when he appeared on the Dave Letterman show one of the first questions the host asked him was: "Is it going to happen, that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?". It seems everyone who learned of Treadwell’s life instantly expected the worst; everyone, that is, apart from Timothy Treadwell himself. The sad inevitability of Treadwell’s fate was confirmed when, on October 6th 2003, he was killed along with his girlfriend by one of the bears he had devoted his life to.

Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a documentary which traces Treadwell‘s tragic story and attempts to unravel the psyche of a man who turns to a life like this. Coming from a filmmaker who has provided some of the most bizarre films ever made; it’s yet more proof that truth is so often stranger than fiction.

Even Herzog at his most idiosyncratic would have been unlikely to invent a character like Timothy Treadwell. With his floppy shock of blonde hair and puppy-like enthusiasm, he’s probably the least likely person you’d expect to find living out in the wilderness alongside animals who could tear him apart at any time. Yet he fits perfectly among previous Herzog heroes; an egotist, a dreamer, a man whose crazed ambitions lead to his downfall. He is a curious figure who only becomes more of an enigma as the film explores his life further. Throughout the last five years of Treadwell’s annual ‘bear expedition’ he filmed his experiences, and it is this astonishing footage which gives Grizzly Man its incredible power.

Treadwell never believed he would die at the hands of the bears. While he appreciated the danger they posed he also believed that he could gain their trust and respect if he acted as a “kind warrior”, displaying strength while also respecting their boundaries. Depending on your viewpoint, this was either an astonishingly brave or incredibly foolhardy practice, and to watch Treadwell interact with these enormous beasts is to witness a man flirting with disaster. Timothy claimed he had an affinity with the bears and he gave them all names like ‘Mickey’, ‘Wendy’ and ‘Mr Chocolate’. When he was around them he spoke to them like you would address a dog, or an infant: “You’re a big bear, yes you are..” he enthusiastically tells them in a camp, childlike tone of voice. When one of the bears makes a move to charge Treadwell he admonishes it by saying “bad bear, don’t do that!” in a stern tone of voice.

While his view of the natural world was certainly naïve in places, certain aspects of the footage he shot could support an argument that he did develop some kind of bond with the animals. There are wonderful sequences here where Treadwell plays with a group of foxes around his camp, and most scenes do indicate that the bears were comfortable with the presence of this stranger in their midst; but is this just animals being animals rather than a genuine rapport?

Herzog poses such questions in his lucid and pragmatic voiceover, which contrasts effectively with Treadwell’s idealistic view. “What haunts me is that in the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature” states Herzog over footage of Timothy fawning over one of his companions. But the director does pay tribute to his subject’s filmmaking potential; and it is fascinating to watch Treadwell stage and re-stage shots of himself walking up and down hills and posing in heroic mode. He seemed to be developing a movie version of his own life starring himself as the almost mythic figure risking his life to protect these bears, but his growing intimacy with the cameras often led to it being used as a kind of confidant, a confessional; which gives us a deeper insight into Treadwell’s life.

Through his own words and interviews with those who knew him we learn that Timothy was a failed actor who, in a bizarre development, spiralled into alcoholism when he came second to Woody Harrelson for the role of Woody in Cheers. Even stranger stories come to light; such as his development of an Australian accent for no apparent reason, and the revelation of his determined efforts to depict himself as being alone at all costs, despite the fact that some shots of him are handheld, presumably by girlfriend Amie Huguenard who perished alongside him. Treadwell also unleashes a shocking and unsettling rant towards the camera near the end of the film in which he rages against those who want to hurt the bears. His foul-mouthed volley of abuse is an amazing tirade which is initially amusing, then slowly becomes unsettling as his anger shows no sign of abating.

Grizzly Man can turn from being hilarious (Treadwell’s tearful lament for a dead bumblebee is a standout) to disturbing in a flash, and the scene which deals with Treadwell’s moment of death is the most harrowing of all. The camera was rolling as he and his girlfriend were attacked but, with the lens cap still on, only the audio of their death was recorded. In a heartbreaking scene, one of Timothy’s former girlfriends allows Herzog to hear things she has never allowed herself to hear. We watch as the director sits with a pained expression and describes what he hears. It’s an astonishing moment; Strangely theatrical, and yet a marvel of respectful restraint.

I’ve never seen anyone like Timothy Treadwell, and I’ve never seen a documentary quite like Grizzly Man. It’s an utterly compelling and haunting film which lays bare a whole life and lets us decide what to make of this man. Was he a brave, noble and well-intentioned man who served a purpose for the bears? Or perhaps he was a vain and reckless clown who did more harm than good? Both points are put forward in Herzog’s film but one thing is beyond dispute - Grizzly Man is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking. A stunning exploration of the inexplicable wonder of nature; both animal and human.