Thursday, December 4, 2008

Film #94: Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man somehow wasn't even nominated for the Academy Award taken home that year by another nature-centric movie called March of the Penguins. While I like them tuxedoed, flightless, Morgan Freeman-endorsed birds as much as the average bear, it doesn’t take a film expert to clue you in that Grizzly Man is the far more complex and superior movie.

Yeah, man, there’s lots of bear footage here, courtesy of the film’s main character, an exuberant but decidedly off-balance amateur filmmaker named Timothy Treadwell (no relation: that’s a name he gave himself; his real name was Timothy Dexter). Attempting to escape intense loneliness, a longtime alcohol addiction, and a failed attempt at being an actor (he apparently almost landed the Woody Harrelson role in the TV show Cheers), Treadwell began an intimate facination with the grizzlies dotting the Alaskan countryside. He’d been an animal lover since toddlerhood, but with his northerly sojourn, one could definitely say Treadwell escalated this adoration to the next level. Grizzly Man follows him over a number of years as he took shelter and rations into the wilderness while turning his video camera on himself as he communed rather recklessly with these big ol’ furry, hungry creatures.

Treadwell is a lovable but, in the end, pitiful figure--a man whose disappointment with the human race manifested itself into an ultimately fatal dalliance with gigantic, clawed forces of nature. Herzog is obviously taken with Treadwell’s enthusiasm and charisma (as the viewer no doubt will be), and he has good things to say about his stabs at filmmaking too. But the great director, so wise in the ways of the wild, is unafraid to also submit that the man tragically misunderstood his relationship with these animals...which is to say, in their eyes, he had none. Nature, even in the case of one who loves it so as Treadwell did, ultimately remains as cruel as its always been. Treadwell and his female companion, Amie Huguenard, unfortunately learned this the hard way.

I'm enchanted that Grizzly Man is as much a film about the movies as it is a personality profile and a nature doc. Here we have Herzog—himself a nature-obsessed, at least slightly unbalanced filmmaker (for proof, see Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, about Herzog’s helluva time trying to drag a ship across land in the Amazon Jungle for Fitzcarraldo). And then we have the ambitious filmmaker Treadwell, who resembles Herzog in his soul-immersion and recklessness, but who doesn't have 50 films to his credit. What Grizzly Man presents to us is an experienced filmmaker commenting on the value of an inexperienced artist’s work; as a result, it often morphs into a gentle documentary filmmaking seminar, where we witness beauty in Treadwell-captured moments that we might not have fully appreciated without Herzog’s patented deadpan commentary—beauty as in the frantic chase after a hat-stealing fox, or in the glacial winds blowing poetically through the pliant brush, or in some much-needed raindrops slapping the surface of a blue plastic tent. This charged footage, coupled with the more obviously gripping shots of bears desperately hunting for salmon, defiantly fighting each other for mating rights, or sizing Treadwell up, are features that easily make Grizzly Man as worthwhile, if not more so, than the penguin epic. In fact, they might make surprisingly apt companion pieces.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

I am in the extreme minority on this, but I have always felt deep down that this film is totally fake.

I'm sorry, I mean - a mockumentary.