One of the novelties I brought back from two years growing up in South Central Alaska was a book titled Alaskan Bear Tales. From the gruesome to the amusing, the stories within captivated my pre-adolescent imagination; years of violent action films had desensitized me enough to be able to handle (and in fact relish in) holding the images conjured by the text â€“ images involving bloody maws and men fleeing with appendages or eyeballs dangling uselessly â€“ in the screen of my mind. Funny that I should end up more than a decade later encountering a documentary about a man who lived among wild Alaskan grizzlies for thirteen summers before meeting a horrific end at the hungry paws of one of his beloved subjects and be thankful that the director spared me having to bare witness to anything so graphic.
Timothy Treadwell was, by societyâ€™s standards, a failure. A college dropout who fled native Long Island for California at 19, he was by midlife an unsuccessful actor, an alcoholic, and a drug addict running in dangerous crowds. Had his life ended in a shootout or an overdose, his would be no different than thousands of other common tragedies â€“ an inconspicuous absence from your high school reunion.
Instead, he reinvented his persona as an amateur expert in the behavior and well-being of grizzly bears, fooling everyone from Animal Planet to David Letterman. Starting in the summer of 1990 (coincidentally the year I obtained the aforementioned chronicle of mauling), Treadwell spent the summer months in the habitat of one of the most ferocious carnivores on the planet, toting only camping gear and, for the last five years, a video camera.
Narrator and veteran director Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Lessons of Light and Dark) stumbled upon Treadwellâ€™s story after his death in 2003 and found in the hundreds of hours of raw footage left behind a complex, immeasurably moving account of the human condition. From the start, Herzogâ€™s intentions with Grizzly Man are clear: man is far more compelling than beast.
Were he alive to screen the finished film, Treadwell might adamantly contradict. Although many of his former love interests and friends make substantial appearances, the Treadwell captured on his own videotape is hopelessly enamored of bears (and foxes), and to an abnormal degree. A fervent vigilante, he constantly makes reference to his dual mission to both study his companions and protect them from poachers, despite his lack of any formal training. In his off-seasons, Treadwell toured his information from school to school educating elementary students free of charge. Herzog observes a gradual turning away from civilization in Treadwellâ€™s last few summers, and letters to friends at this time likewise indicate the manâ€™s almost spiritual identification with bear culture and his desperate wish to, in his word, â€œmutateâ€ away from humanity and into bearhood.
A less experienced or sensitive filmmaker might have spun this material into something with more immediate shock value, but Herzog has managed to craft an incredibly rich piece rife with pathos. Ever the chilly existentialist, Herzog cannot share in his subjectâ€™s idealistic and perhaps deluded conceptions of man and nature, even when he sympathizes with Treadwell. In one of his most helpless moments, Treadwell mourns the body of a fox pup that had fallen prey to a starved male grizzly, muttering between tears â€œI just donâ€™t understand.â€ It is this confusion which fascinates, which so effectively elicits empathy from the audience. This is not an escapee from the psych ward, but a real human as confused and afraid as any of us; although we observe him at numerous moments of seeming madness, it is inaccurate to write Treadwell off as a freak. Were that the case, the film would be merely a nasty exploitation.
In perhaps his most adept maneuver, Herzogâ€™s manages to treat the fatal attack tastefully, approaching the moment from all angles save the most devastating. In the filmâ€™s most moving moment, Herzog himself appears on camera from behind, listening through headphones to the audio recording of their demise. His reaction is the closest we get to the horror; were we allowed any closer, it would render the film almost unwatchable.
Nevertheless, each segment of Treadwell interacting with the immense creatures is more squeamish than the previous. Lost fool or flawed genius, he lived longer on the edge than most humans can conceive; and although he may not have achieved any of the goals he so passionately, obsessively pursued, he has left us with a more honest and naked self-portrait than most would dare begin.