“Is it gonna happen that one day we read a news article about you getting eaten by one of those bears?” – David Letterman.
This is the question Letterman jokingly posed in a 2001 interview on The Late Show to Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary film Grizzly Man. Only in retrospect do we realize how darkly ironic that question became for in October 2003 Timothy Treadwell (46) and his girlfriend Amie Hugenard (37) were mauled to death by bears inside Katmai National Park, Alaska. Herzog narrates and pieces together footage of surviving friends, wildlife experts, and the body retrieval team with film shot by Treadwell himself over 5 summers in Alaska. The result is a fascinating but disturbing look into an enigmatic figure whose persistence and naivete while living amongst dangerous wildlife generates both unintended dark comedy and bewilderment.
The smell of death pervades the film with our foreknowledge of Treadwell’s gruesome end. Herzog goes back to Treadwell’s last location with the bush pilot responsible for first discovering the horrific deaths. Interviews with the coroner responsible for Treadwell’s and Hugenard’s dismembered remains paints gives a grimmer picture by leaving it to our imagination. Similarly an audio tape record of the bear mauling leaves an indelible impression. Herzog makes his only appearance on camera to be seen listening to the tape, but does not share it with the audience. His grimaces and inability to finish the recording provides a far greater emotional impact.
Treadwell, a self-proclaimed “eco-warrior” and bear expert, believed that by living amongst bears he would bridge some sort of divide between humanity and nature in order to educate the public. He founded Grizzly People, a group devoted to preserving bears and their habitats and delivered lectures about his expeditions free of charge to schools. His adventurous antics earned him celebrity status as evidenced by his Letterman appearance.
But the portrait painted of Treadwell becomes clouded by conflicting opinions. Most of his closest friends remain steadfast in the rationalization that he died doing what he loved and were proud of him. However many experts believe Treadwell’s penchant for living among wildlife was stupid, dangerous, and ultimately a disservice to those animals he sought to protect. A native Alaskan museum curator believed Treadwell didn’t respect nature’s dangers as his people have and goes as far to say, “he got what he deserved.” Treadwell’s surviving family saw his obsession with bears as a way to find purpose following a drug and alcohol addiction and a failed acting career where he supposedly almost got cast as Woody on Cheers.
Werner Herzog has a clear fascination with men who dream big but border on self-delusion and madness. Many see Herzog the director the same way especially in regard to his 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, where a 340 ton steamer is hauled up a mountain without the aid of special effects. Although fascinated by Treadwell Herzog does not agree with his philosophies. Where Treadwell views nature sentimentally, Herzog sees it as chaotic, murderous, and predatory. Treadwell anthropomorphizes animals, giving them cute and increasingly bizarre names. Footage shot only hours before the bear attack possibly depicts the perpetrator and Herzog rightfully points out the bear’s face is indifferent and cold. The bear does not share our morality and when in need of food sees people only as lunch.
Grizzly Man’s director connects most strongly with Treadwell as a fellow film maker. Treadwell shot over 100 hours of footage and Herzog edits much of it into his film. A sense of awe comes through Herzog’s narration over footage depicting an untamed world mostly untouched by humans. Herzog particularly finds appeal in the footage’s aleatory nature where events occur spontaneously before the camera.
Treadwell’s delusions of grandeur and complete disregard of common sense made his death inevitable. More tragically he allowed Amie Hugenard, sensibly frightened of bears, to share his fate. Werner Herzog should be given credit for bringing Treadwell’s haunting and often beautiful footage to the public. He does not value it as evidence of a kindred connection between all life’s creatures but as insight into our nature as people.
Archived article by Oliver Bundy