Today’s the first day of DocuWatch. I have a List which I intend to stick to, but I have no idea where to start.
So I pull up a random number generator.
Somewhere between 1 and 100, I think to myself. I’ll watch whatever comes up.
Okay. Let’s begin at the beginning.
Let’s watch Grizzly Man.
“Tim wouldn’t have wanted any bears to be killed over this. That’s the rough thing. Not even the one that killed him […] And the one that killed him was a dirty rotten bear that he didn’t like anyway.” – Willy Fulton, Timothy Treadwell’s pilot and the man who found the bodies.
Grizzly Man opens with Timothy Treadwell, squatting in front of some grizzly bears. It’s immediately clear who the titular grizzly man is – Treadwell is alarmingly close to the bears, his fluffy blonde hair and shabby, baggy shirt giving him the air of the quintessential harmless eccentric. He starts talking about the danger which the bears could pose for him. “They will decapitate me,” he says cheerfully. “They will chop me to pieces. I’m dead.” He finishes enigmatically, walking out of shot: “I can smell the death on my fingers.”
Shortly thereafter, and bringing an end to his 13-year career of getting too close to wild grizzly bears, Treadwell was found decapitated, chopped to pieces, and partially eaten. His girlfriend Amie Huguenard was found dead alongside him. A bear had attacked them in the night; Treadwell’s camera had its lens cap on, but was running, and recorded the audio of the 6-minute attack in its entirety. The camera apparently recorded the bear savaging Timothy, and him screaming at Amie to run as she beats at it with a frying pan. Then Timothy is dragged out into the night, leaving Amie screaming alone. The bear comes back for her soon after.
Thankfully, we don’t hear this. Grizzly Man is a documentary made by famed German director Werner Herzog, a man who’ll be cropping up a few more times in the documentaries I watch for this blog. Herzog’s narration guides us throughout the film, but physically, he’s barely present – apart from one extraordinary sequence, in which we watch him as he listens to the tape recording of Timothy and Amie’s terrible last moments. There is no music, and we don’t hear what he hears. We just see him turn pale, and visibly tremble. Herzog is a man who once got shot and dismissed the entire incident as “not significant;” seeing him so affected is almost worse than listening to the actual audio. Almost.
“Turn it off,” says Herzog, eventually. He looks up at Jewel, who is Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend and the woman looking after this tape. “Jewel, you must never listen to this. And you must never look at the photos I’ve seen at the coroner’s office.” “I know, Werner, I’m never going to,” promises Jewel, tears in her eyes.
This is in many ways the emotional lynchpin of the documentary, and it’s certainly the most famous part – it was actually a scene I already knew about, before watching. It’s astounding how affecting it is, given that all we see is, as above, Herzog’s back and a sliver of his face. The real physical star of the documentary is Timothy Treadwell himself, who recorded over 100 hours of footage out amongst the bears.
We watch as Treadwell runs playfully with foxes who seem practically tame around him. We watch as he gets ridiculously, stupidly close to the bears, and delights over their poop. We watch as he begs the skies for rain, in order to ensure the bears can get the salmon they need for food. The pace at which Herzog rations out details about Treadwell is expertly managed; over the course of the film, a subtle portrait is built of a deeply damaged, complex individual. Although Treadwell wants the world to see him as a happy-go-lucky, idealistic nature-lover – as he puts it, a “kind warrior” – we also watch as he gets intensely personal for the camera about his love life, nonchalantly admits that he wishes he were gay as it would be “easier,” and at one point, goes on a lengthy, expletive-filled, and exceedingly self-aggrandizing rant about the National Park Service. He’s disarmingly honest for the camera in some ways, but in others he lies – his accent is faked, Herzog reveals, and although he consistently claims to be completely alone, he was frequently accompanied on these trips by a female companion. For the last few years of his life, this companion was the unfortunate Amie, who hardly ever appeared in Treadwell’s footage, and was something of a mystery. We know this much: she was very nervous around the bears.
Grizzly Man raises a lot of interesting questions; at first, it seems to be asking how responsible Treadwell is for what happened, and how much what he was doing actually helped the bears. A bear biologist and Alaskan Alutiiq native both agree that Treadwell did nothing but make the bears more comfortable around humans, endangering bear and human lives alike. Herzog himself remains supremely non-judgmental, and the film’s focus slowly shifts; by the end, it is more interested in how Treadwell’s “sentimentalized” view of nature differs from Herzog’s, which sees nature as being ruled by “chaos, hostility, and murder.” It’s a classic dichotomy of bubbly idealism vs. grim pessimism, and the fact that Treadwell was horribly eaten alive kind of gives Herzog’s argument the most credence.
I wonder what Treadwell’s American friends, who are still members of the Grizzly People foundation and who mostly seem to still see him as a hero, made of Herzog’s dark tangents about the savagery of nature.
But Herzog isn’t filming a propaganda piece; he opens a discussion without ever trying to impose his own view too forcefully. He praises Treadwell as an extraordinary film-maker, who was able to capture magical close encounters with nature routinely, and whose retreat into the wilds saved him from the alcoholism and drug abuse which almost ended his life. The mood of Grizzly Man is one of haunting pathos – throughout, Treadwell repeatedly mentions how he is perfectly willing to die for the bears, how easily the bears could kill him, and even how he probably will die out there in the Alaskan wilderness. Even he seems to think his death is inevitable, and watching him discuss it with such prescience is certainly an eerie experience.
Grizzly Man is a fascinating documentary – just as I thought it would be – and a wonderful start to DocuWatch. It’s a sincere portrait of a deeply tragic figure, and I think it will stick with me for a long time. Despite the fact that he dragged Amie down with him in death, despite his paranoia and lies, and despite the fact he probably did more harm than good, you still end the film with a certain admiration of Timothy Treadwell. For his mad conviction, and his genuine love. He is a fascinating figure, and I’m glad the documentary focused as much on him as it did on the circumstances of his death.
Documentary Trope of the Day: The point of this blog is to expand my knowledge of documentaries themselves, not just of their subject matter. So I’ve decided that with every review, I’m going to be identifying a particular ‘trope’ that the doc made use of – with no intended negative connotations, but referring rather to any particularly interesting or ubiquitous technique. In the case of Grizzly Man, I’m going to go with the authorly voice-over. Werner Herzog’s excellently portentous narration makes him almost as big a part of this story as Treadwell is; his presence is felt throughout, and his steadying voice keeps the film focused on broader questions than just ‘what did this guy think he was doing?’