Grizzly Man

I have to confess that my initial attraction to this film was the soundtrack, which is done by Richard Thompson, one of my favorite singer songwriters. This is strange because I usually don’t care about a film’s music unless it bothers me. If I don’t notice a soundtrack, I figure it was good.

As I started to see previews and read about the film, however, I felt drawn to the movie itself. The story of Timothy Treadwell, a sad deluded man who was killed and eaten by a bear in Alaska, is compelling namely because he himself had such an engaging personality. His passion for animals, especially bears is evident in the hours of videotape he left behind. Werner Herzog used much of this footage to construct a sympathetic, but ultimately damning portrait.

There is no question about Treadwell’s dedication to his cause. He spent 13 summers in Alaska’s wilds, supposedly studying his bears, although not in any kind of rigorous or objective way. He more or less hung out with them, giving them cutesy names and getting amazingly close. The rest of the year he toured the country, appearing on Letterman, speaking to school groups and accepting no fees for it. Kids loved him, probably because he was so childlike himself. His enthusiasm was always close to the surface and he crackled with energy. Throughout the tapes, he tells the bears he loves them, even after he stands up to them and orders them to back off. When they leave, he tells them he’s sorry and that it’s alright.

Herzog also interviews Treadwell’s few close friends and the amateur naturalist seems to have inspired great loyalty. The real cipher was his girlfriend Amie Huguenard who died with him. Her family wouldn’t talk to Herzog and she didn’t get into the videotapes much. Yet in the coroner’s chilling account of the audio track on the videotape that was running when they died (there was no picture, thankfully) and his recreation of the deaths, he describes how she battled the bear with a frying pan, even while Treadwell was begging her to save herself. Despite this, Treadwell was basically a loner who preferred the company of bears to humans.

Now to give Treadwell his due, he did survive 12 complete and the better part of a 13th summer living with these wild animals. He had a theory that the bears respected strength; you had to stand up to them and not show fear. It seemed to work. You actually see it working on the tapes. On the other hand he spent most of his time with one group. They accepted him, or at least became inured to his presence. The bear that got him was a stranger, an older bear who couldn’t hunt very well and was facing hibernation without an adequate reserve of fat.

As Herzog sees it, Treadwell had an idealized view of nature. He saw these animals as friends, brothers even. In his mind they were filling the psychological needs he’d been denied in the civilized world. But death, drought and cruelty, inevitable parts of nature, perplexed and saddened him. He couldn’t accept that part.

I have a friend who owns a dog. This animal is normally very gentle and loves people. She told me one time when she was working in her yard that the dog bit her for no apparent reason. My friend could never figure out why, and afterwards, the dog went back to being the same agreeable pet. My point is if we can’t figure out what our tamest domesticated animals are thinking, how much more inscrutable must a truly wild beast be? Stay away from bears, people!

Oh, and the music? I didn’t really notice it.


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September 2005
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