Grizzly Man

OK, not really, but it sure felt that way. I was in a funk. The slurpy voices of self-doubt ("you have nothing original to say, nothing authentic to contribute!") were sucking me down into the quicksand of creative paralysis. My friends were throwing out lifelines like "disorientation is an inevitable part of your process." Ugh. So I went to the movies. It seemed fitting to choose a film about a man who was devoured by bears since that described the exact sensation in my head.

Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog's documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a well-meaning but deluded "protector" of wild grizzly bears. A failed actor with a history of alcohol abuse, Treadwell sought salvation in Alaska where he lived among the grizzlies, alone and unarmed, for 13 summers. He observed and interacted with them peacefully until October 2003, when a hungry bear ate him. The bear also killed his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who picked that unfortunate summer to accompany him. Treadwell documented his many bear encounters with a hand-held video camera, and captured, most astonishingly, his own brutal death. Though he had no time to get the lens cap off, he did manage to push "record" before his arm was ripped off in the fatal attack.

Werner Herzog gained access to that grisly tape and the 100 hours of film footage Treadwell left behind. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the result could have been simply a sensational story about a wide-eyed, troubled man done in by nature. Instead, Herzog uses documentary film portraiture to examine an infuriatingly brave and romantic man in naive pursuit of a utopian coexistence with a dangerous predator -- and to examine fundamental tensions in human nature. Especially in our essential quest to find/create meaning out of our lives.

It turns out Timothy Treadwell was a decent videographer. Herzog incorporates much of his handiwork, and a few nuggets are so gorgeous and uniquely intimate, you gain a sense of what kept him out in the wilderness for months on end. He also talks non-stop to the camera, sometimes ecstatically (about the bears), sometimes vulnerably (about himself), and oftentimes angrily (humans, God, the National Park Service). He has an innocent's rhapsodic view of nature, all romance and benevolence, and lives out his Waldensesque principles with glee -- he undergoes great hardships without complaint, and is genuinely loving with the bears. But where he sees cosmic harmony, Herzog does not. The filmmaker muses in voiceover "I believe the common character of the universe is hostility, chaos and murder." Herzog's outlook is as bleak as Treadwell's is idealistic, and the tension between these two worldviews is fascinating.

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Herzog treats his subject with skepticism, but he is also sincerely respectful. His examination of what drove this man becomes deeper and kinder as we get closer to the moment of death. And here is what makes Herzog such a master craftsman: We don't see the attack. We don't even hear it. What we see instead is the director listening to Treadwell's death-tape on headphones. And as Herzog, the skeptic, becomes visibly shaken and pleads that the tape be destroyed, we can only imagine the gruesome things he alone has heard. What follows after this extraordinary moment is an uncommented-upon scene from Treadwell's old footage, a bear fight in progress, some sort of mating ritual, and as the bears rip into each other with their claws and teeth, we see, we feel, we understand what happened to Treadwell. It is just two long shots coupled together, but it is a brilliant construction. I wept openly, feeling as though I had witnessed his death firsthand.

This is no nature film, my friends, it's a film about human nature. And its questions haunt long after the credits roll.

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