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August 21, 2005

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who spent 13 consecutive summers (1991 through 2003) living with grizzly bears in Katmai Park on the Alaskan peninsula.

Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a grizzly in the fall of 2003.

During his last 5 summers in Katmai Park, Treadwell shot over 100 hours of video of his life among the grizzlies. This footage forms the core of Herzog's Grizzly Man. Treadwell was no casual videographer. It's obvious to the moviegoer that he was painstakingly shooting an autobiographical film, in which he would appear as the heroic grizzly protector.

At times it seems as if Herzog is straining to impose his own favorite themes on Treadwell's story. In voiceover, the director says that Treadwell rejected the human world and decamped for Alaska to fight his demons in "wild nature." Treadwell's own footage tells a different story. Frankly, he doesn't seem to be battling any demons to speak of. He sometimes angry or irritated. Informants who knew him assure us in interviews that Treadwell had a "dark side." But as far as we can see, he's seamlessly self-deluded.

As David Edelstein puts it:

The nutty thing about Treadwell is that—for all the talk of his "acting like a bear"—he's a dead ringer for Corky St. Clair, the gay theater director played by Christopher Guest in Guest's Waiting for Guffman. There is the same self-dramatization ("I am a samurai warrior when challenged!"), the same wounded petulance, the same overflowing sentimentality: "I love you! I love you!... He's a big bear, yes he is."

We only see Treadwell when he knows he's on camera, usually when he's filming himself in the Alaskan wilderness. Yet, for all his overt preening and self-consciousness, he never really breaks character--even when he's wondering aloud between takes about whether his hair looks okay, chasing a fox that stole his hat, or whining into his hand-held cam about how he's a nice guy who can't get laid.

In between takes we see Treadwell addressing the camera less formally--but he's the same self-deluded narcissist throughout.

Herzog only gradually reveals the extent of Treadwell's self-delusion.   

Treadwell's central claim is that he's on a mission to protect the bears, but we eventually learn that Katmai Park is already a federally protected nature preserve patrolled by the Federal Parks Service. As a real bear biologist later explains, the grizzly population of Katmai isn't even endangered. Poaching isn't a major problem in Katmai, and when potential poachers turn up, the flighty, unarmed Treadwell proves a feeble deterrent.

For all his tearful statements of devotion, Treadwell's relationship with the grizzlies is remarkably shallow. He gives them cutesy names and addresses them in baby talk. He has no apparent scientific curiosity about the bears. The last thing he wants is a detached human perspective on his "animal friends."

Treadwell effectively domesticates the foxes in his camp. Blissed out pups lie against Treadwell as he strokes their fur. When he gets up, they follow him like dogs. Sometimes he spills his guts to the nice foxes about his problems with the glorious but unattainable bears.

More than anything Grizzly Man captures the paradox of narcissism. Treadwell can't relate to anyone or anything except as an extension of his own desires. He desperately wants to be liked and respected, but he can't step outside himself long enough to imagine how he's coming across to other people, or even to animals.

Herzog and his informants search for meaning in Treadwell's life and death, but what did he really accomplish? Very little, as it turns out. He didn't learn much about bears because he was overcome by his own gooey sentimentality. If the video record is any indication, he didn't learn anything about himself. You keep wondering when he's going to realize how absurd he looks. Instead, he spent his months of solitude constructing elaborate cinematic "proof" of his own heroism. Ironically, the record shows the exact opposite. 


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Fascinating commentary, Lindsay. Treadwell's reputation as a crank preceded him in the wildlife protection community. I witnessed a significant amount of resigned head-shaking when he and his partner were killed, and some outright anger that he'd swept her into his silliness and endangered her life.

All forms of activism require a lot of knowledge, but I think that it is particularly encumbant on environmental and animal activists to know what the fuck they are talking about, because there are so many romantic misconceptions you can fall into.

I should add that watching the film, it's really hard not to like Treadwell on some level, despite the fact that he's a preening, delusional narcissist who's largely responsible for getting his girlfriend eaten by a bear. No seriously, it is -- Treadwell somehow comes across as a pretty endearing guy. (The movie wouldn't work if he didn't.)

I was especially appalled by his behavior--as a naturalist said early in the film, he thought Treadwell had done more harm than good by habituating grizzlies to people. That was strongly substantiated by the scene late in the film where some tourists show up and a bear approaches them, apparently out of curiousity, and won't even turn away when they start throwing things at it. I've spent some time in grizzly country, and that's not how they normally behave.

I'd quibble a bit with your characterization of Herzog, though; to the extent he saw a point in all this, he said, it was that nature is chaotic and cruel and indifferent to human characterization, and Treadwell just didn't understand that. He pointed out "the blank stare" of some grizzlies as evidence of this. Maybe he was being too grandiose, but I don't really think of that as "searching for meaning in Treadwell's life;" he came across as a guy in love with nature films who ran into this unbelievably rich cache of source material, and tried to find a justification for editing it and showing it. Which is to say I didn't really hear any preaching from him, except maybe "don't anthropomorphize grizzly bears too much," which strikes me as eminently reasonable.

Correx: David Edelstein.

Dan, I think Herzog explicitly says that he's trying to find meaning in Treadwell's life and death.

When Herzog ruminates about the chaos of nature, it's clear that this is an object less that he, Herzog, wants to impart. He uses the first person and says stuff like "This is where I differ with Treadwell..."

But Herzog is also interested in what meaning or significance Treadwell's project might have had in its own right . I.e., what was the point of going to live with the grizzlies, and given how badly it turned out, was it in any sense a worthwhile endeavor?

Vanity Fair had a piece on Treadwell early last year (March? April?). As I recall the "dark side" as portrayed there was drug/alcohol related, and fleeing to the grizzlies was more about Treadwell protecting himself from his impulses as protecting the bears from anything.

I saw it yesterday. It was interesting. I simultaneously thought, "gosh, they really should have gotten that guy some help. Maybe he could have been treated, and he could have lived a normal, decent life."

Then, simultaneously, a darker side of me was thinking, "this is crazy footage. Perhaps it's good that we have some unstable wackos out there, because no sane person could have brought this kind of movie to me, and really, didn't he get what he wanted in the end? (dragging Aimee in, though, does seem to be unambiguously terrible)"

I thought both Herzog and Treadwell were interesting, because they both seemed like such exagerrated parodies of real people. Treadwell more so, of course, but Herzog too, as he ruminates about the horror, the horror, and Treadwell's demons (I didn't know what he was talking about there either).

Treadwell's haircut even reminded me of Aguirre a bit, though younger.

When Treadwell was talking about his previous life of substance abuse, until he found the bears, it sort of occured to me that he might have an extreme exaggeration of the same sort of personality that Bush has. He finds himself drunk, unmotivated and directionless, then he finds something to really, really have faith in (bears or Jesus), then tries to become the messiah.

Overall, perhaps it would have been better from a if Bush had given up alcohol to go out and get eaten by bears instead of becoming the President and getting us into horrifying wars, but alas...

Also, you have to admit the film was pretty funny. I think overall I found Treadwell's bafflement at why women didn't want a relationship more funny than anything I saw in The Aristocrats, and same for the sililoquy for the "dead" bumblebee.

Extra-credit essay assignment: Compare and contrast Timothy Treadwell and Steven Vincent.

Binky: The drug and alcohol impulses may have been self-medication. When I read this account of Treadwell's life, I believe I recognized the manic symptoms of bipolar disorder. (I suffer myself.) The gradiosity, the risk-taking, the drug abuse, etc. are all in line with the diagnosis.

Lindsay: I'll file this as a recommendation to pursue when it comes out on DVD.

Treadwell was such an unreliable narrator that I found myself wondering just how bad his alcohol problem was. He was desperately trying to assign a grand, earthshaking purpose to his interaction with the bears (remember how the "poachers" unpacked cameras and telephoto lenses, rather than rifles). I think it's likely that he was also overdramatizing the messiah role that he assigned to the bears. About the only objective account we have of Treadwell's substance abuse is his father's comment: "He came home from college and wanted to smoke dope in the house. I put the kibosh on that."

I thought it was a real shame that Treadwell couldn't feel fulfilled unless he was saving the world. He might have stayed alive and made a real contribution to the study of grizzlies if he could have accepted the fact that he simply enjoyed being in the wilderness and watching bears.

What is our relationship with life on earth? Dependent undoubtedly. Remaking it since we started to herd goats. Can't stop that. Do it wisely. Ridiculous.

In 5 billion years, having avoided annihilation war, disease, or meteor, will will decamp this earth on an array of rockets and rocks to find a younger star.

And we will take our life friends with us. From bacteria to fish to goats to well, you get the picture. An armada of new arks. I figure we got about 5 billion years to learn to live together in space.

Treadwell at least loved the bears, and brought attention to them. Let's not bash him for his reputation social awkwardness.

Treadwell at least loved the bears, and brought attention to them. Let's not bash him for his reputation social awkwardness.

The "love" was pathological. Maybe my view is skewed by knowing the the audio of his death and that of his girlfriend is so horrific it's agreed people should never hear it, and the knowlegde that his hubris not only lead to the deaths of 2 people (including himself) but to the deaths of a couple of the bears he was trying to protect.

I didn't know. Pity all the way around. Especially for the young woman's parents.

Interesting. We're all trying to find "deep meaning" while missing the obvious point: this man in the wilderness suffered from mental illness. I wonder if that means that readers here suffer from the folly of believing that a mood disorder entirely incapacitates?

I want to hear the tape.

A friend of a friend was an animal trainer. He related the following wisdom: working with big cats is not that scary. If they are well-fed and well-treated, and the trainer does nothing that looks like prey behavior, they are essentially trustworthy. Trainers turn their backs on the great cats all the time.

Working with bears is always nerve-wracking and unpredictable. A trainer can work with the same bear for a decade or more, and without warning, the bear will take the trainer's head off. Just because he can.

Trainers turn their backs on the great cats all the time.

Tell that to Roy Horn.

Like I said,

and the trainer does nothing that looks like prey behavior

Of course, working with a 400 lb tiger, little mistakes (like tripping over one's feet) have large consequences. Some folks seem to think that they are just big kitty-cats. The problem is, this is correct. Most folks I know have accidentally pissed off their cat and gotten scratched or bitten simply due to inattention. With a cat two or three times your own size, those moments of inattention make the evening news.

Still and all, this guy (who was a very well known animal trainer, someone whose name you might recognize) had the settled professional view that big cats were essentially predictable so that incidents resulted from trainer error, whereas bears would blow a fuse for no reason.

mudkitty, that may be true, but you don't have to share.

I want to hear the tape.

not according to the 3 people who have heard the tape. Two of them are used to horrific incidents and they claim to still be haunted by it (and that it's the worst thing they've ever heard).


I don't think we've all missed his mental illness (or that even most of us have) and how it impacting his life and judgment.

This is the first movie in years I've looked forward to seeing.

I *so* can't wait.

Let us know what you think, Cookie. I'm sure you won't be disappointed. GM is one of the best movies I've seen in years.

Treadwell's certainly an unreliable narrator, but Herzog gives us converging evidence of his former substance abuse problems. Tim's parents mention his drinking problem. The actor friend tells of Tim's near-fatal overdose. Tim's ex-girlfriend Jewel not only mentions his recreational drug use, but also hints at some connection to drug-related violence (it's not clear whether she's alluding to drug dealing or unpaid drug debts, or what). Everyone seems to agree that Tim substituted grizzly addiction for substance addiction.

Herzog seems to be arguing Treadwell had a meaningful career as a filmmaker, regardless of what he accomplished as an activist, conservationist, or naturalist. I think Herzog is making a very good point. Whatever else you can say about Treadwell, you have to admit that he shot great footage of those bears.

It's ironic, because Treadwell didn't see himself building an artistic legacy, per se. He was self-consciously constructing a document for posterity, but he seemed to think of it more as propaganda/documentation than as art. So, Treadwell failed on his own terms, but he managed to create something of enduring value anyway.

Yeah. He's like the pathetic uncle in Napoleon Dynamite who films repeated reenactments of the pass he would have made in the championship game years ago if only the coach had put him in.

Coming to this late...

I saw the film, and walked out furious with... Herzog. His condescension was palpable; a documentarian doesn't have to love his subject, but Herzog at times seems to actively dislike his subject. (And he throws in stupid, gratuitous cracks about union film crews.)

I know folks who've started donating to Grizzly People as a result of this film; the long-term good Timothy Treadwell's life and death brought about will surely outweigh the damage done to a few bears who grew too comfortable with him.

No, he wasn't a naturalist. He was a sentimental narcissist, which means he was just a more extreme version of many of us, and he did what many of us sometimes fantasize about doing. His footage was breathtaking; Herzog's narration was infuriating.

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