We got free passes from the Brazos Bookstore to see Werner Herzog's new film, Grizzly Man. It's the story of Tim Treadwell, amateur grizzly observer who, with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, was eventually killed by a grizzly. They gave us "Grizzly Man" water bottles when we came in. Very odd -- celebrate the horrendous death of this man with a refillable water bottle! It had measurements on the side, but it also contained a piece of paper which disavowed any attempts to use it to measure anything. Ah, the weird world of film promotion.
If you're familiar with Herzog's work, you know to expect no easy answers. Herzog lets Treadwell's remarkable footage speak for itself most of the time. Treadwell becomes an intimate part of the grizzly world in Alaska, maintaining a foothold on the dangerous periphery of the bears' lives. Through his lens, we see them: powerful, individuals, enormous! The up-close view of grizzly life will perhaps be Treadwell's greatest contribution.
But there's also the unravelling of a deeply damaged person. In the months of solitude, Treadwell turns to his camera as to a confessional. His disgust with the human world emerges clearly, as do his erratic mood swings. The childlike delight in the beauty of the remote paradise clashes with his increasingly antagonistic anger toward perceived enemies of his sanctuary. Companion interviews with Treadwell's friend and family fill out the portrait of a deeply troubled man. The grizzlies provide an initial rescue from substance abuse, but seem to become another destructive obsession. It's hard not to see Treadwell's choice to remain longer and longer among the bears as a kind of intricately orchestrated suicide.
In the end, Herzog cannot resist imposing his own view of nature as chaotic and cruel. Over footage of the bear that most likely killed Treadwell and Huguenard, Herzog expresses his view of the grizzly's "blank stare" and sees him as a cold killer, without acknowledging that his reaction is just as shaped by his expectations as Treadwell's was. Neither can see nature without romanticizing or demonizing it. But Herzog chooses from the hours of footage sequences that show the amazing lives of these animals, their beauty and their power; the footage itself inspires awe in the simplest form for these magnificent creatures who live in a harsh and alien world.
There are some extremely horrific moments, though not the deaths themselves. There is an audio tape of the event, taken by Treadwell's video camera with the lens cap still on. In a overly self-conscious moment, Herzog listens to it in front of Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's former girlfriend and co-creator of Grizzly People. Herzog asks her to turn it off, declares she should burn it and never listen to it, which makes the scene feel much too exploitive. Similarly, the scene where uber-creepy coronor, Franc Fallico, hands Treadwell's (still functioning) watch to Palovak while explaining that it was found on his severed arm, is both awkward and, well, creepy. Likewise, Fallico's singular dramatic recreation of the death scene adds new resonance to the bizarre coroner, now a seeming staple of television.
The film is fascinating. I'm not sure how I feel about Treadwell in the end. He was deeply troubled, no doubt, and perhaps misguided. What really stays with me is the ironic difficulty people have dealing with nature. Living in the midst of a mostly unnatural city which seems at times paved end to end, I can see how the separation from the natural world leads to both Treadwell's and Herzog's viewpoints, either romanticizing it as a lost paradise or demonizing it as dispassionate killer. That separation is the real tragedy.