For thirteen years, failed actor and controversial cofounder of Grizzly People Timothy Treadwell camped in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Reserve to study, protect and befriend native grizzlies, flouting park laws in the process. During the last five years, Treadwell videotaped extensively, right up to the sound-only recording of his and girlfriend Amie Huguenard being eaten by one of his beloved bears. Legendary German film and docu-maker Werner Herzog took Treadwell's hundred hours of videotape and has fashioned a most intriguing portrait of the "Grizzly Man."
After recently reflecting on his relationship with deceased actor Klaus Kinski in his documentary "My Best Fiend," it would seem that Herzog has found a new subject which reflects them both. Like Kinski, Timothy Treadwell was a controversial figure in a blonde Prince Valiant cut who often went apoplectic with cameras running and whose relationship with nature Herzog questions (in "Burden of Dreams," Herzog talks about Kinski's 'fake' nature loving, yet he ends "Fiend" with a butterfly perching all about the man). And yet, Herzog has admiration for Treadwell's obsessive filmmaking, a trait that could easily be attributed to himself. Timothy Treadwell is, indeed, the perfect Werner Herzog subject.
Herzog starts off with an ironic gift from Treadwell, a beautifully framed shot of him in the park describing his bears and wrapping with 'I will fight to the death for them, but I will not die at their claws and paws.' He then interviews several participants in the aftermath of Treadwell's death, identifying each visually by their trade. Willy Fulton, standing beside his seaplane, is the pilot who flew Treadwell in each year, then returned at a specified point to pick him up months later. In October, 2003, though, he had to make several pass overs before he spotted a bear eating what appeared to be a human rib cage.
Like a crime novel writer, Herzog begins to introduce potential suspects. Treadwell is seen on the banks of a river where Ollie, an old gaunt bear, seems to be playfully diving into the river, the pads of his feet sticking out of the surface. But the behavior, we are told, is troublesome, indicating a desperate bear looking for salmon carcasses on the riverbed very late in the season. Then Timothy introduces us to 'the Grinch,' a grizzly he named for her aggressive tendencies. A member of the retrieval team, Sam Egli, stands beside his helicopter and tells us four garbage bags 'of people' came out of the bear who was shot at the scene. Egli thinks Treadwell got what he deserved, opining that he only lasted this long because the bears thought there was something wrong with him. Ecologists, a native Alaskan historian and a bear biologist all express their concerns about what Treadwell was doing.
Herzog counters with what an incredible filmmaker he was becoming, citing happy accidents like friendly foxes sticking their snouts into Treadwell's lens and the repetitive takes Treadwell to ensure continuity in his eventual opus. The 'character' he presents is like Steve Irwin, Australia's crocodile hunter, crossed with Mr. Rogers ('That's a big bear!') and some kind of crazed Evangelist ('that poop was in her!' he marvels, finding a warm bear dropping in the wake of one of his female 'friends'). Timothy also tells his audience he is alone with the bears for months on end, but Herzog disproves that as did Treadwell's death at the side of his girlfriend. Herzog could not gain the cooperation of Amie's friends or family and finds few images of her on Treadwell's tapes, the last scarily close to an unknown bear which may, in fact, have been her killer (her diary also noted a fear of the bears). Only Medical Examiner Franc G. Fallico, who seems as strange as Treadwell, comments on her, romanticizing her death based on that final tape which Herzog does not play in the film.
Treadwell's personal demons are explored beginning with a visit to his parents. Timothy claimed on video that he cured his alcoholism for the bears, but what of his mental health? We witness disturbing rants and Herzog, once again alluding to Kinski and perhaps even himself, notes 'I have seen this kind of madness before on a film set.' Treadwell seemed to deny the bare facts of nature, which Herzog describes as chaos, mayhem and murder, and often seems delusional describing the outside threats to the animals.
Herzog, the master storyteller, fills in significant and surprising facts about Treadwell's last days at the end of his film, building a case that the 'grizzly man' had become so anti-civilization he courted his own death. Treadwell even states that his death may be what is needed to publicize his cause. Assisted with a perfectly evocative score by Richard Thompson, Herzog has helped his subject make his film while questioning his reasons and his method.
Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers living among the brown bears (not grizzlies) in a remote corner of the Alaskan wilderness as the self-proclaimed protector of giant predators. He videotaped some 100 hours of his experiences over the years until the tragic day in October of 2003 when he and his companion, Amie Hueganard, were mauled, killed and eaten by one of Treadwell’s perceived wards. Docu-meister Werner Herzog takes Timothy’s amazing footage and spins the story of Treadwell and his bears in “Grizzly Man.”
Herzog has a penchant for finding subjects (including his favorite actor, Klaus Kinski) for his feature films that are larger than life and a little mad. It befits the filmmaker that he has found a documentary subject equal to his fictional characters – and Kinski – as he presents the life and death of Timothy Treadwell.
Treadwell, in the early 1990’s, was falling into the throes of alcohol and self-destruction when he gleaned the idea to journey to far north and spend the summer protecting the majestic Alaskan brown bears from poachers, tourists and, according to Tim, their most dangerous enemy, the US National Park Service. Usually alone, with video camera in hand, Treadwell set up his bear-resistant camp (supplies are brought in 55 gallon steel barrels) each summer for 13 years and captures his complicated relationship with the enormous bruins.
With camera rolling and the vast lands of Alaska as his backdrop, Treadwell introduces us to each of the bears under his self-prescribed care, describing himself as “the kind warrior” who will protect his wards from any and all who try to encroach on his territory. This includes remarkable footage of Tim’s relationship, even friendship as he sees it, with the great bears and a fox named Iris and her cubs. As you watch this incredible nature footage you come to understand that Treadwell has eschewed the human world for, to him, the comfort and safety for the primeval wilderness of the bears.
This footage, some might call it, is of a delusional sociopath who can’t exist in human society and sees himself as the lord protector of creatures that don’t really need his help. Herzog supplements this with interviews with Treadwell’s family, friends, coroner Franc Fallico, float plane pilot Willie Eldon who brought Treadwell to the wild land, bear ecologist Larry Van Doele and others to balance the documentary with insights different than Tim’s. The filmmaker brings himself into the picture, too, when he interviews a close friend of Treadwell’s and listens to the horrific audio recording (on headphones) of the deadly attack on Treadwell and Amie Huguenard by a bear not a part of Tim’s protected family. Herzog doesn’t pander to the gore-seekers by playing the tape and even advised that it be destroyed to keep it out of exploitationist hands.
The film makes the point that Timothy Treadwell was not a trained ecologist or expert in bears. He violated many rules of interaction in the wild and, according to experts interviewed, may have caused more harm than good. Herzog also shows the wild mood swings that plagued Tim as he is shown in childlike wonder (“That’s a big bear!”), then challenging God for bringing a drought upon the land, prohibiting his bears from feeding on their principle source of food, salmon. When the rains do come, Tim considers it a personal victory. Timothy may honestly believe in his quest but his video footage also shows a man obsessed with his anthropomorphic view of the bears as the epitome of harmony and goodness.
Some may consider “Grizzly Man” as a treatise on ecology with the Alaskan brown bears as its microcosm. Others may consider the film the destructive story of a delusional man whose misguide zeal did more harm than good and ended in his own, and another’s, horrific death. That Timothy Treadwell spent 13 years living among the these bears has to be seen as a remarkable feat in anyone’s eyes, even those who disparage him. The remarkable video chronicle of his annual journeys represents some of the most incredible views into the wild that I have ever seen.
Grizzly Man” works on many levels and, while not perfect and a little lopsided, it is definitely worth the time and effort to watch. The film’s theatrical distribution will be followed by a run on the Discovery Channel later this year so there is no excuse for not seeing this thought-provoking documentary. I give it an A-.
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