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Grizzly Man

Reviewed By Todd LaPlace
Posted 02/06/06 03:03:19

"Grizzly obsession."
5 stars (Awesome)

“I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals. I will die for these animals.” This tragic mantra belongs to Timothy Treadwell, amateur zoologist, activist and all-around whack-job. He also happens to be the title subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary “Grizzly Man,” the posthumous tale of Treadwell who was killed by the very bears he was attempting to protect. At times light and comedic, and dark and foreboding at others, Herzog has crafted one of those flawless, unbiased films (assuming Herzog’s not pulling another fast one on us) that deserves every little praise it gets.

True to noble form, Werner Herzog never allows his own biases to infect “Grizzly Man,” his latest documentary. He merely tells the tale, allowing all sides to equally unfold and conclusions to be individually drawn. On one side of “Grizzly Man” is the righteous Timothy Treadwell, a disheveled blonde surfer boy that for 13 summers is driven to Alaska to protect the approximately 3000 grizzly bears that reside in the Katmai National Park and Reserve. A man with no formal zoology training, he is motivated by his simple love of these animals. He worked with ex-girlfriend Jewel Palovak on Grizzly People, a protection organization he founded. He integrated himself into the bear world, giving them names, helping them catch salmon and protecting them from poachers. If it were plausible, he would have turned himself into a bear, a desire he will constantly reiterate throughout his film diaries.

Conflictingly, “Grizzly Man” also portrays Timothy Treadwell, professional nutbar. Because he has no training, he never quite understands the boundaries between activist and harmful kook. He openly defies park policies by not moving his camp every week and by not maintaining a safe distance from the bears, often letting them get within inches of him and his camera. Because of that lack of distance, it was easy for Treadwell to befriend the bears, but it also largely began to domesticate the animals. It also begins to increase the self-worth of an already arrogant Treadwell who sees all of the bears as his friends, including the unknown one that eventually kills him. Throughout his summers, he remained naïvely optimistic that he’s the one person who cares most about these bears, but that passion made him narrowsighted and often a little bit crazy. At one point, Tim finds a pile of bear droppings and touches it, claiming he’s “in love” with the bears and marveling that the poop was once inside Wendy, one of his bear “friends.” For Treadwell, it was the perfect representation of life.

Despite these notions labeling Treadwell as largely insane (even his friends agree with the designation), Herzog never uses the clips as a form of exploitation. The potentially most exploitative clip — audio of Treadwell’s death — doesn’t make the final cut. In September 2003, Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were camping in an area of the park known as the Grizzly Maze, which had recently become populated with wild bears unfamiliar to Treadwell. When the attack finally came, the showman in Treadwell, seemingly conscious of his fate, managed to turn his video camera on, but didn’t remove the lens cap. The end result is a horrifying audio track Palovak allows Herzog to hear on camera, although the director prematurely stops it as he can’t take it anymore. The tape, according to Herzog, is Treadwell screaming in vain for Huguenard to run and Huguenard just screaming and trying to bean the beast with a frying pan. Herzog warns Palovak against listening to the tape, encouraging her to destroy it.

The fact the tape exists at all is a reflection of what makes Treadwell worthy of an acclaimed, high profile documentary. The film implies the audio was not gotten accidentally at the end of a shot, but was intentionally captured by Treadwell as his last action. If there’s anything he loves more than those grizzly bears, it’d have to be himself. Treadwell’s story is almost too good to be true, and to some extent, it is. He grew up in New York, but when he moved to California, he adopted the lie that he was an orphan from Australia, even going the extra step of using a fake accent (which never quite solidified). Some of his close friends only found out the truth in his obituary.

It’s clear why Herzog would find inspiration in the story. Just last year, he played himself in Zak Penn’s “Incident at Loch Ness,” a faux-documentary about a disastrous attempt to film the elusive lake monster. Herzog has gone a long way to craft his own kooky persona, even if it’s just one on camera. Treadwell largely followed the same path, playing the role of the lone champion and martyr for bears, even though he was regularly joined by other people. Huguenard had even been going for a few years before that final trip, although she only appears on camera two or three times. During one shot of Treadwell receiving supplies, he asks his companion to get out of the shot, because he’s supposed to be there by himself.

Watching the movie is almost slightly surreal as footage shows Treadwell spending lots of time filming pick up shots of himself jumping through the brush. He may have said he was there for the bears, but it always appeared as though he was really there to fulfill his own superstar fantasies. To be fair, it might be Herzog that is making a star out of Treadwell, selecting the majority of the self-important clips for “Grizzly Man,” but somehow I doubt it. It doesn’t seem like Treadwell missed an opportunity for self-promotion. An early clip showed him appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman,” which has since become something of an eerie foreshadow. One of Letterman’s first questions was “Is it going to happen that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?” On the one hand, it’s a peculiar prediction of the tragic end of a life. On the other, it’s a surreal opening to a fantastic film that would have done its subject proud.

It’s really easy to call Timothy Treadwell a majestic activist, championing an animal misunderstood as vicious. It’s also really easy to call Treadwell a crazy loon whose desire to be both famous and a bear trumped his good deeds. There’s a big difference between passion and obsession, and if anyone had no clue where that line is, it was Treadwell. His life was intriguing and his death was tragic, but thanks to Herzog, it is his cinematic legacy that made him a star.

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