Grizzly Man (15)
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Time Out says
Mon Jan 30 2006‘Look for the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities. Forget about your worries and your strife.’ It’s advice that could have come from Thoreau at Walden, or any of his successors in the survivalist strain of American self-sufficiency, from Californian communes to the Unabomber to John Locke in ‘Lost’. That it actually came from a cutely anthropomorphised bear might have given it special resonance for Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living with grizzlies in Alaska as their self-appointed guardian and, he felt, companion – until, in October 2003, one of them placed nutritional above sentimental value and ate him.
Compiled from 100-odd hours of Treadwell’s own DV footage, plus interviews with his loved ones and associates, ‘Grizzly Man’ is fascinating as both nature documentary – Treadwell captured some extraordinary moments, from a savage brawl between bears to his own playful gambolling with prairie foxes – and as a portrait of a narcissistic monomaniac, utterly in keeping with Herzogian type. From early features such as ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ to recent documentaries ‘The White Diamond’ and ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’, Herzog has been consistently fascinated by men who disdain civilisation yet seek to bind the wilderness to human terms through sheer force of will.
‘Grizzly Man’ initially has the air of an extended exercise in dramatic irony: it’s hard not to feel superior when this blond California surf dude confidently insists, ‘I will not die at their claws and paws.’ There’s also the whodunnit aspect of wondering whether his killer is one of the animals we see him interact with – a ‘which bear?’ project made all the more suspenseful by the ad hoc nature of his video footage. A gifted imagemaker, Treadwell delivers impressive shots featuring himself in the foreground addressing us, the mountains standing stately in the distance and a grizzly in between, often lumbering towards him unnoticed...
Increasingly, however, attention turns to Treadwell’s shaping of his persona in front of the lens: he agonises over his choice of bandana and shoots dozens of takes of his comments to the camera, which also serves as a confessional. Such concern is consistent with the self-made character we learn of from his friends: an all-American teen diving ace turned failed actor and drug abuser with an assumed name and identity, he then identified grizzly welfare as his vocation and salvation and restyled himself as the lone Prince Valiant of the plains – despite in fact being joined in Alaska by his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who lived and died with him but is rarely glimpsed on screen. She is one of the film’s great lingering unknowns.
The other is the audio recording of the fatal attack (the camera was running but the lenscap on), which we see Herzog listening to in horror – one of several moments where the director’s personal presence is strongly felt. He also engages with his subject through a personalised narration which forms a kind of dialogue with Treadwell, probing at his strange self-mythologising with neither indulgence nor ridicule and contrasting his ideas of harmonious nature with Herzog’s belief in indifferent chaos.
Curiously, Treadwell is not the only presence with a whiff of self-conscious performance about him. Many of the interviewees could almost be on secondment from a Christopher Guest mock-doc (‘Best In Show’, ‘A Mighty Wind’): Catherine O’Hara could play Jewel, the former lover who met Treadwell while working as a serving wench at a medieval banqueting hall; Eugene Levy is a shoo-in for the hammy coroner; and Guest’s Corky St Clair (from ‘Waiting for Guffman’) is echoed in Treadwell’s oscillating between twee sentimentality and violent self-justification.
Self-shaping before the lens is one thing, but Treadwell also tried to reshape nature to meet his expectations, both conceptually – he gives the bears gooey names like Tabitha and Mr Chocolate and resents insects feeding on mammal remains – and literally, by engaging directly with the grizzlies and even interfering with their habitat out of misplaced sympathy. The vitriolic paranoia Treadwell expresses about the National Park Service in particular and the ‘people’s world’ in general makes obvious his troubled rejection of human society – a rejection whose flipside was a romanticised yearning for a simple life among the animals which, in its wilful naivety, was tantamount to a death wish. He was a Mowgli in need of a real-life Baloo that simply doesn’t exist.