Review Date: 8.23.05
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
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.