Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Grizzly Man

A few weeks ago, I watched Grizzly Man, a prize-winning documentary by the German filmmaker Werner Herzog. It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, an environmental activist who lived among the grizzlies of Alaska for thirteen summers. Late in that thirteenth summer, he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by one of the grizzlies.

At the time that I saw the movie, I told a friend of mine that I felt Herzog could make a documentary about almost anything and make it interesting. Since then I have been thinking about that. Just what is it that Herzog did that made Grizzly Man so compelling? Well, for one thing, he’s a great filmmaker and he knows how to make a movie, but there’s more to it than that, for Herzog lets you get to know Treadwell in the same way that you would get to know anyone. He shows you how the man presented himself to the world, then digs deeper and a deeper into who Treadway really was until, by the film’s end, we have a much more complicated understanding of the man.

At the beginning of the documentary, Herzog explains in a voiceover that he gave Treadwell a camera with which to film himself in Alaska. The result was more than 100 hours of footage, and that is the source of the on-site shots in the film. Herzog includes some selections from Treadwell at the beginning of the movie, giving us a picture of an environmentalist with a pretty romantic and unrealistic attitude toward the bears and what they might do.

Many Alaskans, including the native Inuits, thought that Treadwell crossed an invisible line, and that he got too close to the animals. Herzog even interviews one man who said that Treadwell got what he deserved. Herzog films the man standing on the flight line of a small Alaskan airport. The camera angle is the same throughout the interview, showing the man from about the chest up. Throughout he has on a pair of dark sunglasses, so you can’t see his eyes. That was a great touch in my opinion.

As the movie goes on, it becomes apparent that Treadwell was a man who craved celebrity and that, by spending his summers among the grizzlies, he found that celebrity. In one sense, he was exploiting the animals for his own personal satisfaction. He said that he spent his summers among them to draw attention to the killing of the grizzlies and the destruction of their habitats. However, he spent those summers camping out in a national park where the bears were protected. Those particular animals were in no danger.

On the other hand, Treadwell was a very effective fundraiser and a dynamic spokesman for the environmental movement. He was apparently particularly good with kids and, though he died in his mid-forties, the grizzlies might fairly be said to have saved his life. As Treadwell himself acknowledges in the film, before he discovered the bears, he was an alcoholic who lived a life of boozing and brawling. His concern for the animals brought him out of all that. As I said earlier, it’s a more complicated portrait than it first appeared, and Herzog handles like the master that he is.

My favorite Herzog documentary is the one that he did about Klaus Kinski. Talk about wild. It’s a must see. The English title is My Best Fiend. That’s a terrible title. In German it’s Mein liebster Feind. In the first place the German word “feind” doesn’t mean “fiend”. It means “enemy”. The best translation of the title would be My Most Beloved Enemy. That expresses the sort of love-hate relationship portrayed in the documentary.


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