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Grizzly Man

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 05/28/06 16:12:23

"No one knows what it's like to be the bear man."
5 stars (Awesome)

With the notable recent exceptions of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, few documentarians in history have insinuated themselves into their stories to quite the level that Werner Herzog does with Grizzly Man. Perhaps drawn to Timothy Treadwell’s footage because of the man’s questionable mental state, Herzog’s film appears at first to be less about Treadwell himself than about Herzog’s opinion on Treadwell. It’s an interesting way to go about it, if nothing else.

In most documentaries – especially documentaries focused on a single person – perspective is achieved through careful juxtaposition. If a director wants to avoid fawning over his subject, he may cut in some opposing viewpoints, or briefly focus on a misstep the subject made in life. Either way, he remains unseen; at best, a narrator stands in for the director and points are made that way.

Herzog, however, is his own narrator, and he is not shy about elaborating on his treatment of Treadwell’s footage. The tapes Herzog uses come from a period of several years during which time Treadwell was living in the Alaskan wilderness in the summers, doing what he thought was protecting the grizzlies there and recording footage for, it seems he thought, a potential documentary. Treadwell got his wish, though probably not how he imagined it; he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in October 2003, and Herzog ended up getting permission to make his own film with Treadwell’s surviving footage.

Now, there’s virtually no way that Grizzly Man could have been made without narration. A certain amount needed to be included to explain what happened to Treadwell, and why. Herzog’s narration soars beyond the merely explanatory, however. Not wanting to be accused of endorsing his subject’s apparent instability, Herzog distances himself from the bulk of Treadwell’s beliefs. Treadwell felt he was communing with and befriending the animals; Herzog deflates this late in the film when he states, “There is no secret world of the bears.” On at least two occasions, Herzog interjects as Treadwell says particularly controversial things and explains how exactly he disagrees with his subject.

In another documentary, such a tactic might have undercut the entire point, but Herzog does have some measure of admiration for Treadwell. He routinely stops everything to show a shot from Treadwell’s camera that he considers particularly beautiful or poetic (though he does comment on how Treadwell himself was almost certainly not aware of such moments), and he at least has enough respect for the man to keep both the viewer and Treadwell’s loved ones from hearing the tape of Treadwell’s final moments.

More so than all of this, though, Herzog simply seems captivated by Treadwell. It’s not hard to see why. Whatever the reason, Treadwell lived on the edge, in a place so dangerous it’s amazing that he survived nearly 15 years’ worth of summers there. Some of his footage is indeed spectacular, but it’s what the footage doesn’t say that often makes Herzog so curious. There is little exploration of why Treadwell entered this life in the first place, but an attempted glimpse into his past doesn’t seem to yield much. Herzog takes a particular interest in the oddity of the lack of footage of Treadwell’s girlfriend Amie – despite the amount of time she spent in Alaska, she appears on camera only a couple of times and her face is never clearly seen.

It seems that Herzog considers the whole story something of a mystery – but one without answers, and one he doesn’t want to have specific answers. Treadwell’s story is left wide open – we have the footage, but it can only say so much. There are gaps left to be filled in all over the place. We are left to imagine how Treadwell came to be who he was, how he survived in Alaska as long as he did, how he convinced someone else to come with him, what that relationship was like, how he died. (Herzog incorporates both himself and the coroner describing some of the final tape, but we are left to wonder – if we want to – just what it may have actually sounded like.)

In that sense, Herzog’s film is also a meditation on truth in film. Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote was that film is truth at 24 frames per second, but Errol Morris – ironically best known as a documentarian – is fond of saying that film is lies at 24 frames a second. Herzog seems to implicitly hold in the latter camp; in many ways, Grizzly Man is less about what is shown than what is not. Treadwell’s footage is all we have, yet we know that there must be many things we are not seeing – some he chose not to show us, some Herzog chose not to show us, and some things that could never have been filmed in the first place. The truth of Treadwell’s footage is on the screen for everyone to see, but it is what his pictures do not say that becomes the most compelling question.

Herzog offers his opinion where he can, but ultimately he knows that Grizzly Man is best served by letting the audience fill in the gaps for itself. It is, in fact, the moments where Herzog backs off a little that lend some of the most authenticity to a film that is at once completely genuine and bizarrely surreal. Two hours of truth that still offer no real answers, Grizzly Man is the answer to every filmmaker who ever gave up because he didn’t know enough about his subject. Sometimes, the unknown is the most fascinating of all.

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