January 4, 2006

Grizzly Man

This bear is one of the first you encounter in Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent 13 summers living among the grizzlies of the Alaskan Peninsula before getting eaten by one.

The logistics of the film are this: for the last five years of his trips, Treadwell started bringing a camera out with him to the Peninsula and began taping the bears and himself, combining personal reflections with some stirring and "holy crap, he's going to get his face ripped off," very personal close-ups of some of his "friends." What Herzog has done is edit the 100+ hours of film (all the way up to the day he died, the last year's film recovered after his death) and bring you even closer—but closer to Treadwell, not the bears. This documentary is a psychological examination and evaluation, and it works because of Herzog's deep understanding and Treadwell's intriguing and charismatically quirky, yet alienating persona.

Herzog has always been attracted to Heart of Darkness type stories—tales that reveal the beast in man, the depth of his connection with the darkest parts of human nature. Human nature—the tensions that lie in that combination of words— the combat between "civilization" and primal order for a man's soul—and the non-difference between the two—that is what has always obsessed Herzog. In Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, he searched for the slippery edge between human and nature in the jungle, and indeed Treadwell refers to the bear's world as a jungle quite often, but I believe that Herzog's triumph in Grizzly Man is that he has found a character he could not create, and the vibrant reality of this character both overpowers and draws in the viewer and, clearly, the director.

I think few who watch Grizzly Man will see Treadwell without reservations in liking him. He is paranoid, delusional, and both to the point of harm—to himself and the bears. Many experts testify that his actions were environmentally stupid, if not detrimental to the bears' safety. And his legacy is clearly mixed—his death does not allay any fears of bears.

Treadwell's needs and fears are simply not our needs and fears, but he is so completely human in his quest for a pristine world untarnished by humanity that he does represent very vividly and unmistakably an enormous part of human endeavor. The same impulse lies in Treadwell that has been found in all great utopians and all great arcadians—those who would create a new, perfect civilization and those who would abolish civilization to its roots. Treadwell is just one fairly fucked-up guy, but he's also Herzog's stalking horse for humanity.

Herzog's brilliance lies in his meticulousness and artistry, but also in his narrative discipline. He brings order out of chaos in bringing Treadwell's story into focus.

No comments:

Post a Comment