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Grizzly Man
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Review Date: 8.23
.05 & 8.24.05

Grizzly Man is a documentary quite unlike any I’ve seen before. Ostensibly it’s the story of Timothy Treadwell, a troubled man who more or less dances with bears – wild Alaskan grizzly bears. But on a subtler level, it’s also a film about making a film… and about the making of a film within a film.
Grizzly Man was made by Werner Herzog, the Werner Herzog. His portrait of Timothy Treadwell isn’t flattering, but Herzog clearly admires the mettle of the man. And above all, Treadwell’s fearlessness stands out.
There’s so much that’s fascinating about this movie, and not least for what, as I read it, it unintentionally reveals about Herzog.
There’s no way you’ll avoid the knowledge that Timothy Treadwell meets his fate in the maws of one of his beloved grizzlies. People in the ticket line talk about it before they’ve entered the theatre. So I won’t dance around that fact. The protagonist dies. He’s eaten by a grizzly bear. How Herzog handles that grisly fact is part of what makes Grizzly Man so mesmerizing.
Much of Herzog’s film is composed of footage shot by Treadwell, in the last six summers of the thirteen he spent in the Alaskan wilderness, living with the grizzlies. Treadwell had about one hundred hours of film stock and apparently intended to make his own documentary. Had Treadwell lived to make his film, Herzog’s could never have been made. Treadwell’s death was necessary for Herzog’s art.
A bit of background on Treadwell won’t spoil anything for you. At the heart of megalomania is a constellation’s worth of insecurity. Timothy Treadwell may not have been a clinically qualified megalomaniac, but he had at least a moon’s worth of insecurity. We learn a bit about that from Herzog’s interviews with Treadwell’s friends, parents, critics and a former lover. But most of our insight into Treadwell’s psychology comes directly from the mouth of Timothy Treadwell as he talks into his own camera.  Treadwell’s camera captures not only the magnificent grizzlies in their natural habitat, but serves also as a visual and sonic diary. And it’s impossible to avoid feeling a bit voyeuristic watching much of what Herzog artfully scavenges from the raw one hundred hours Treadwell shot. Treadwell emerges as delusional, but not at all stupid. He would surely have been conscious enough to have kept the embarrassingly self revelatory scenes to himself. In fact, he apparently shot some of the narrative scenes over and over until he was satisfied he had a reasonably sanitized version for eventual use.
That Herzog reveals Treadwell’s dirty linen makes provocative cinema, but reveals a bit of the sadistic in himself. And this tendency isn’t limited to his treatment of Treadwell. There are two scenes in which Herzog trains his camera on the coroner who received the remains of Treadwell’s body. It’s great movie making. The coroner is hyper-aware that he’s been offered his lifetime supply of Warhol moments. And Herzog is aware of the coroner’s awareness. We know that Herzog is watching the coroner perform. And when the self-conscious monolog is over, Herzog lets his camera linger on the coroner, now speechless, twitching, and even more painfully unnatural.
Artfully mix magnificent shots of grizzly bears, panoramic Alaskan wilderness, bit players mugging for the camera and a brave but delusional protagonist and you have the raw ingredients for a terrific film. Grizzly Man is a bit unsettling, for more reasons than one, but I highly recommend it.