August 31, 2005

Movie Review: Grizzly Man

Let me first admit that I have never seen a Werner Herzog film before. It seems that the more films I watch the more that appear that I have not seen, more directors yet to be discovered. Grizzly Man is an interesting combination of Herzog's director's eye and subject, Timothy Treadwell's vast amounts of footage.

The documentary focuses on the life and death of Treadwell. For those of you who don't know, Treadwell spent 13 summers living with the wild grizzly bears in a remote part of Alaska. During his last five years he took video cameras with him and shot somewhere in the vicinity of 100 hours of footage. The footage ranges from bear watching, to Treadwell giving speeches to the camera, to the acting out of scenes as if he was directing himself in a feature. The expeditions came to an abrupt end in the fall of 2003 when he and his girlfriend, Amie, are attacked, killed, and eaten by one of the bears he was so steadfast in defending.

Herzog deftly assembled this footage creating a narrative structure allowing the viewer to gain a glimpse into the man, the self styled celebrity. Blended in with the original footage are interviews with friends and family. We watch as these friends paint a picture of a loving man who was fiercely dedicated to what he was doing. We watch as Treadwell, himself, professes his love for these wild animals.

He has names for all of them, he treats them almost as if they are people in bear suits. He crosses that line between the world of the humans and the world of the bears, and that may have led to his ultimate undoing. But this film isn't about romanticizing Treadwell's life or sentimentalizing the bears, nor is it about choosing sides. What it appears to be doing is just giving us an insight into a man who seems to be drowning in his own desire to become one with the bears.

The footage that Treadwell shot was amazing. I tend to think he was a bit more manic than logical, but watching him interact with the wildlife was mesmerizing. If nothing else, Timothy Treadwell is a charismatic screen presence. You can't help but watch the Prince Valiant haircut, listen to the phony accent and be drawn into his world. I cannot say that I agree with what he was doing, nor can I say that he was going about it the right way, but you have to admire his heart. He believed that he was doing good, acting as the defender of the bears.

Herzog shows us the footage, we watch as Treadwell grows and changes over the course of the film. Early on he paints a sweet compelling character, someone who learned to leive with the bears without getting hurt. Showing us the hierarchy and how he must fit into it lest he meets his end at the end of a clawed paw. We see him befriend the local foxes and stand on the sidelines through a brutal bear fight. He films himself over and over, creating scenes for a never to be made documentary of his own making. We catch him, it could be staged moments mourning the loss of life in the wild, it was almost as if, while crossing the line into the wild side of nature, he refused to accept the circle of life in the world of predators. We watch him become increasingly agitated and paranoid over those who he feels are a threat to him and the bears.

There are conversations with the the pilot who flew Timothy into the wilds, and how he discovered his ultimate fate. There are a variety of friends mourning his loss, and praising his legacy. We even get to see him appear on The Late Show being interviewed by David Letterman. In one of the more graphic portions, a coroner describes how the remains are brought to him and what was heard on the final recordings.

When Timothy and Amie were attacked, the camera was started but the cap was never removed. There exists the audio footage of the attack. We are never given access to this, and rightly so. We do see as Werner Herzog listens to the tape through headphones, once done, he says to Timothy's close friend, Jewel Poloviak, that she should never listen to it and that she should destroy it. Good advice, in my opinon.

Bottomline. This is an interesting work. Compelling, sad, bizarre all at the same time. Treadwell was a strange individual who met a terrible end, but also left a legacy to those who cared for him. Herzog has done a wonderful job of putting this footage together along with his interviews contrasting someone with an overwhelming love for the natural and the director's more bleak outlook. This one is definitely worth your time.


Also at Blogcritics.


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