Title: Grizzly Man
Genre: Documentary, Biography
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenwriters: Werner Herzog
Starring: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Werner Herzog
The lines between passion and obsession, and between obsession and madness are favorite subjects of filmmakers, fiction and documentary alike. Werner Herzog is clearly enamored with the story of Timothy Treadwell, the amateur naturalist and self-appointed protector of Alaskan wildlife whose devotion and delusion led to his death at the hands of the creatures to whom he had dedicated his life. Grizzly Man, the compelling documentary that resulted from Herzog’s fascination with the man, attempts to pin down the location of those abstract boundaries, with Herzog himself predictably taking an interest and often putting himself front and center. This sense of personal involvement makes the movie by turns fascinating and self-indulgent.
Frederick Wiseman aside, few would claim that documentarians don’t have the right to inject their views and perspectives into their work. Certainly Michael Moore, perhaps the most high-profile if not the most well-respected of his breed, puts himself front and center and does just fine — I think, though others disagree, that he manages to keep the focus squarely on his subject while making himself a supporting character. And some films (Stevie comes to mind) are forthrightly as much about the director as anything else. But in many cases there is undeniably the danger of interfering with your story if you sneak in front of the camera. It’s a tough balance to strike.
Herzog narrates Grizzly Man himself in his appealing, accented drawl. More often than not, though, he lets Treadwell speak for himself, and he has plenty to say. The talking heads interviewed in the film treat Treadwell’s memory with the utmost seriousness — they’re friends, colleagues, former girlfriends, staunch admirers — but in the footage, he comes off as being almost completely deranged, with rare moments of self-deprecating clarity. As he addresses his imaginary audience, he paints himself as “the kind warrior” who must sometimes become a “samurai” to survive among the bears of the Alaskan wild; he coos babytalk to the fierce creatures with whom he spends his days; he soberly informs us that “God would be very pleased” with him. We get the feeling that he’s left this world both literally and figuratively, though where he’s gone and what made him leave remain a mystery.
The vast majority of the film is dedicated to the footage Treadwell shot, and the perspectives of the talking heads who knew him. Occasionally, though, Herzog will pipe in with some trenchant insight of his own, adding his own point of view “as a filmmaker” and occasionally coming to Treadwell’s “defense.” He comments that the images Treadwell shot often have a haunting quality, coming alive in ways you wouldn’t expect. When he has an extended moment of anger, lashing out at the park rangers who would try to halt his work, Herzog puts in that he has “seen this kind of rage before, on a movie set.” And when discussion turns to the audio that was recorded of Treadwell and his girlfriend’s death at the hands of a bear, Herzog declines to play the tape for us, and instead we watch him listening to it through headphones, sometimes commenting on what it is he’s hearing. When the tape is turned off, he tells the woman who owns it — an old friend of Treadwell’s — that she should never listen to it and should, in fact, destroy it.
Often, I enjoyed Herzog’s involvement. The maneuver with the audiotape bugged me — actually watching him sit there and listen to the thing is probably a bit much — but I can’t say it wasn’t effective, since actually playing the tape would probably have been too lurid for what he was trying to do. But Herzog runs into trouble when he begins to aggressively assert his views. When Treadwell expresses his outrage at a favorite fox being killed by a predator, Herzog calls him misguided. Why? Because, Herzog says, nature is characterized by chaos rather than harmony. Really? Says who? And what’s the difference, anyway? Making such categorical pronouncements and then simply moving on (he does this a couple more times, telling us, for example, that despite Treadwell’s ranting and raving, the park service is good people) is distracting and counterproductive — it brings Herzog closer to Treadwell than he perhaps would like.
Though the portrait of Treadwell is often quite compelling, Grizzly Man is most notable for the way it depicts nature as alien and unforgiving, frightening in its cold majesty. I don’t know if it’s chaos or harmony on a larger scale — I’m not sure anyone does, though Herzog claims to — but I do know it’s not cute, or cuddly, or ours for the taking. Grizzly Man‘s most potent insight is the narcissism of those who would claim to make friends with animals as distant and unknowable as these.