by Chris Knipp
For thirteen years "grizzly man" Timothy Treadwell went to an Alaskan wildlife refuge on Kodiak Island and pitched his tent alone -- and the last couple of times with a girlfriend (Amy Huguenard) -- spending the summers among huge grizzly bears. The rest of the year he went to schools and "free of charge" showed his films of the bears and his exploits. When the last of his summers drew to a close he and his girlfriend died among the grizzlies as he'd always known -- and even David Letterman had pointed out -- that he might. Filmmaker Werner Herzog, longtime student of crazy eccentric loners on heroic doomed quests, has taken on Treadwell's life and personality as the subject of a rare and powerful documentary.
At the heart of Grizzly Man are Herzog's selective cullings from film Treadwell left behind chronicling both the bears and -- with poignancy and openness -- his own demons, passions, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Herzog has added interviews with women in Treadwell's life, with his parents, with the pilot who took him to and from his campgrounds and later found his and his girlfriend's remains, and with Franc Fallico, the unusually sympathetic and sensitive -- and perhaps a bit looney -- coroner who examined these. The director has bound it all together with his own frank and idiosyncratic narration. The result is a rare sober look at the more delusional aspects of man's relations to wild animals.
At times Herzog by implication sympathetically links Treadwell with his former principle star and sparring partner, the late mad eccentric actor Klaus Kinski. Like Kinski, Treadwell had tantrums on a film set. But his set was the outdoors and there was no director to spar with; his sparring partners were nature and his own troubled psyche. Nature contained, of course, living witnesses, chief among them the grizzly bears he knows can kill him. He repeatedly tells the camera how much he loves them. He loves the gentler, smaller foxes near whose dens he pitches his tents during the second halves of his summer sojourns. He tells the camera you must be firm with the bears, and he says he knows how to handle them, even though he also repeatedly says he knows he may die there.
He is a gambler. Is he a complex man, or merely a confused one? Is he brave, or just foolhardy? What is his purpose in spending all this time among the grizzlies? Is he gathering information, or taking refuge among creatures he need not please, only keep a safe distance from (though he continually comes closer to bears than the park rules and good sense require)? He has a soft sissified manner and voice and even says he wishes he were gay. But he also rants and rages embarrassingly and tiresomely against unseen enemies, poachers, sightseers, rangers, hunters, park officials, the whole urban settled world he runs from to this world he idealizes and blindly sees as perfect.
As Herzog notes, Treadwell sought to disregard nature's cruelty, and any time it was in his face -- as when the bears were starving in a dry spell and began eating their own young -- he sought to manipulate nature to eliminate the ugliness. He faulted not the bears but the rain gods. Then when his atheist's prayers are answered and torrential rains do in fact come, Treadwell is comic -- not for the first time -- trapped for days in his collapsed tent.
Young Timothy according to his parents was an ordinary boy who loved animals from childhood and got a diving scholarship to college. But he injured his back and quit college and he drank and when he went to LA to act and didn't get a part on Cheers he "spiraled down." He never had a lasting relationship with a woman and the drinking became serious and constant. In vain he tried programs, meetings, self-discipline -- but the drinking went on and was killing him. Finally he got sober for the grizzlies and the foxes. He decided to devote his life to them and he pledged to them that he would be clean and healthy. It was a miracle. Yet he remained not only manic-depressive but passive-aggressive, as his alternations between gentle declarations of love of the animals and his spewing of vitriol against the civilized world attest.
Treadwell's soft-voiced declarations of love and sweetness among the grizzlies would be beautiful -- if such behavior, in a world of extreme physical risk, surrounded by limber lumbering beasts with great teeth and long claws, while preening for the camera with caps and bandanas and golden locks in a dozen alternate takes -- were not criminally silly and irresponsible. Herzog hides none of this in his portrait, which is both sympathetic and ruthless.
As the years passed, the Grizzly Man found transitions back to civilization harder and harder to make. On the last occasion, an airport official infuriated him by questioning the validity of his ticket and he turned around with his girlfriend -- who was afraid of bears! -- and returned to the "maze," the most dangerous of his summer campgrounds because it wasn't in the open where the bears could see him and steer clear but among their burrows and the brush. It was later than he ever stayed and the bears he knew and had names for were hibernating now, replaced by new unknown and more hostile and nasty animals. He must also have been more desperate, perhaps more careless? We see the bear that probably devoured him and poor Amy.
Herzog has access to everything, even an audio-only tape of Timothy and Amy's truly grizzly death. He spares us, though. He didn't want to make a snuff film.
As Herzog begins his film by stating, Timothy Treadwell crossed a line between wild animal and human that should never be crossed. It's a line many touchy-feely "nature" and "wildlife" films also cross: see the recent March of the Penguins and you'll have a prime example. Grizzly Man isn't meant to be about grizzlies. It's about men who cross that line -- who willfully misunderstand nature for their own misguided reasons, to serve their own dysfunctional needs. A depressing but important film.
©2005 Chris Knipp