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A Grizzly Affair

Monday, July 24, 2006
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Grizzly ManGrizzly Man

Dir: Werner Herzog

The tale of Timothy Treadwell was one that seemed destined to told by German director Werner Herzog. Herzog has long been fascinated by men who are swallowed by landscapes and lose themselves, in a Colonel Kurtz kind of way, to nature. Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzccaraldo are Herzog masterpieces from the 1970s, both dealing with men in South America (and both played with manic energy by Klaus Kinski) who try to conquer nature, Aguirre for the Spanish empire, and Fitzcaraldo for personal profit.

Grizzly Man is a continuation of this theme in documentary form: Timothy Treadwell went to Alaska every summer for 13 years to protect a group a sub-species of Grizzly bears from hunters. He camped near the bears in almost complete isolation. On his last trip, he, and his girlfriend were brutally killed by a starved male grizzly.

What makes Grizzly Man so extraordinarily powerful, is that Treadwell meticulously videotaped and photographed his trips. It was a way for him to show people when he returned home the beautiful landscape and habitat of the bears, but undoubtedly, it was also a way to relieve the stress of isolation.

The footage that Herzog chooses to show illuminates Treadwell’s own nature on many different levels. He felt a spiritual connection with the bears. He was not a scientist conducting a detailed study of bear biology, rather, he was someone looking for a cause he could devote his energy and compassion toward. And this spiritual connection gave him the nerve to try and get as physically close to the bears as possible. Therefore, his footage often includes himself in the frame in the foreground, looking out at the bears in the distance. Sometimes he was so close to the bears that all they would have had to have done was taken a few steps, swiped, and Treadwell would have been finished.

Grizzly Man -- With Grizzly

Treadwell’s footage depicts human nature in the most raw and unchecked state possible for video to do. Treadwell comes across as caring, angry, idiotic, gentle, and, well, crazy. But Herzog is too smart, and his artistic instincts too strong to just make this a film about a raving lunatic. Treadwell found in the community of bears, a family that he had been unable to find anywhere else. He saw himself as their protector; a messiah in the meadows and streams, watching over them as they fished and fought.  If these clips aren’t unsettling enough, at times he also rants against the hunters that would kill them for trophies – and boy does he rant. His outbursts are fascinating to watch – in a car crash sort of way. He’s been out of human contact for months, he’s frustrated and he lets his feelings tumble forth. Talk about a cry from the wilderness. One particular rant, he keeps recording take after take, but each time he gets angrier and angrier and has to start again. Freed from the restrictions of society, Treadwell begins to become a bit of a madman, raving as loud as he can cause no one but the animals can hear him.

Man, Bear and Fox -- Living Together in Harmony

But we also see a side of Treadwell that proves he wasn’t just a crazy man with a God-complex. Over the years he befriended a family of foxes. The foxes, so unused to human contact, accepted Treadwell, and provided him with genuine companionship. They would play with him, and follow him on long hikes. Herzog as narrator steps in and while, not defending Treadwell’s overzealous methods of discouraging the hunters, defends him from a filmmaking perspective. Much of Treadwell’s footage from his last few years shows that he was maturing as a filmmaker. It’s raw, and it’s beautiful. Indeed, Herzog allows the beauty of the Alaskan landscape to be shown via Treadwell’s images, rather than his own.I also respect Herzog for not allowing us to hear Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard’s (who by Herzog’s own admission, doesn’t have a large part in the film because very little is known about her) last moments. I say ‘hear’, because Treadwell had the camera rolling when the bear attacked them. Herzog visited Treadwell’s friend who owns the tape and asked to listen to it. Just watching Herzog’s face as he listens is some of the most powerful cinema imaginable. He then tells Treadwell’s friend to destroy the tape. I respect Herzog for that above everything else, because it’s the kind of thing that if it ever fell into the hands of Fox News, it would played on a never-ending loop.

I watched Grizzly Man five or six months ago and I haven’t been able to shake some of the images out of my head. This is what documentary film should be like. You can feel Herzog working through the material as the film progresses. He tries to understand the real Treadwell, and he tries to impart to the audience how difficult this is to do. Ultimately, he doesn’t favour any point of view being expressed by people in the film, whether they thought Treadwell was wacko or that he was misunderstood. He really does leave it open for the audience to decide, which may sound like a cheesy thing to say, but so rarely do I find documentaries that aren’t just trying to push one agenda over another.

I’m still on the fence as to what the real Timothy Treadwell was like, which, I think, is exactly what Herzog intended. His film’s tend to orbit the heart of darkness, but while Grizzly Man takes us deep into the dark areas of Treadwell’s soul, the tragedy that was his ending cannot belittle his incredible experiences while he was alive. He lived a life that few would choose, but he saw and experienced things that were unique and magical, and this is what Herzog celebrates.

Grizzly Man - With Fox
You can download this image as a wallpaper.llewopemearg

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