Who was Timothy Treadwell, the “grizzly man” whose thirteen-year love affair with Alaska’s brown bears came to a tragic end in the fall of 2003 when a hungry brown killed and partially ate him and his girlfriend?
A crusading naturalist, his friends insist. A dangerous nut, his critics argue. In fact, Treadwell, at once a dippy, tree-hugging eccentric and a skilled, experienced woodman, an enthusiastic public speaker and a confirmed misanthropist, seems too complex and too contradictory a human being to be summed up either by the barbs of his critics or the accolades of his friends.
Over the last five of his thirteen summers camping in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, Treadwell shot more than 100 hours of digital video of his interactions with his beloved bears. Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s meditative documentary, blends excerpts culled from Treadwell’s raw footage with additional material mostly shot by Herzog in a game effort to make sense of Treadwell’s life, but Herzog’s earnest, inadequate commentary adds too little light.
Yes, Treadwell slapped silly nicknames like “Mr. Chocolate” on his ursine companions. But this doesn’t mean that Treadwell actually viewed the animals as “people in bear suits,” in the words of one critic. On the contrary, he seems to have appreciated the bears precisely because they weren’t people, a species for which he increasingly had little use. His personifications may have been more poetic than real; he may have romanticized nature, but perhaps he wasn’t actually guilty of anthropomorphizing it, at least not to the degree it might have seemed.
Yet Treadwell knew too much not to be aware on some level that in living cheek by jowl with the bears year after year, he was actually endangering them as well as himself, since a bear accustomed to humans is a bear more likely to attack one — and a killer bear is a dead bear. Even if Treadwell believed, as he boasted, that his own grizzly-man mojo was enough to keep him safe from bear attacks, what about lesser mortals who might happen to trespass in the wilderness he considered his own private turf? However little sympathy he might have had for the victims of such an attack, how could he be indifferent to the fate that would surely befall the poor animals?
Treadwell’s need to see himself as the “defender” and “protector” of the bears seems to have overridden rational considerations. Ironically, in one sequence Treadwell actually does come across some campers lobbing rocks at “his” bears — and can only bring himself to fume impotently at them from his hiding place in the bushes.
As a record of obsession, eccentricity and human need, Grizzly Man has the makings of a compelling, evocative document. Yet as the evidence mounts of Treadwell’s clinical paranoia and manic-depression, one may reasonably wonder how much of this footage should decently have been made public at all. One scene in particular, a Tourette’s-like, obscenity-laden meltdown damning the park service and Treadwell’s other self-declared enemies, seems clearly a record of mental illness rather than passion, and its inclusion in the film is perhaps a kind of obscenity in itself.
At least Herzog wisely omitted the most horrifying artifact of record in Treadwell’s footage, the gruesome audio recording of his own death and that of his girlfriend Amie Huguenard. (The camera was left on as the bear attacked, though the lens was capped so only audio was captured. The sound recording has not been made public.)
Other times Treadwell’s footage ranges from striking to touchingly self-revealing. One of the most evocative sequences takes place in Treadwell’s tent as Treadwell frets fitfully over the lack of rain, which has depleted the streams and inhibited the migration of salmon, leaving the bears hungry. Though expressly agnostic about a higher power, Treadwell is willing to consider any option that could help the objects of his obsession, and offers an ad-libbed, syncretistic prayer to whomever or whatever it may apply, whether it be Jesus Christ, Allah, “Hindu floaty things,” etc. (It’s nice to see, too, that when heaven does deliver on the the rain, Treadwell duly offers thanks to the range of powers that may or may not be, from Jesus to the “Hindu floaty things.”)
Viktor Frankl argued that man’s most fundamental need is for meaning, for his life and actions to have purpose and worth. For Treadwell, the bears were both his life’s work and his salvation. Finding purpose, however implausibly, in his devotion to the bears, Treadwell kicked alcohol abuse and drug addiction and went on to write a book, found a conservationist organization, travel the country speaking to schoolchildren, and make a number of television appearances. At the same time, his alienation from human society seems to have worsened as time went on, and may have been a factor in his untimely death.
Herzog’s efforts to make sense of Treadwell’s life, to articulate the meaning that Treadwell himself sought, range from intriguing to banal. the filmmaker’s own philosophical resources seem inadequate to the task he’s set himself.
Viewing the world in materialistic terms, Herzog rejects Treadwell’s romanticism in favor of cold Darwinian reductionism. Yet he also seems to think that Treadwell has crossed some kind of line, though his view of man doesn’t enable him to articulate what line might separate men from beasts.
Ironically, Herzog’s own fascination with Treadwell’s quest for meaning is itself a clue to the nature of that line, if only the director saw it. At turns fascinating and banal, Grizzly Man is in a sense a fascinating failure, a film that dances around vital questions about the human condition that it is barely able to articulate, let alone address.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.