The strange life and grisly death of ‘Grizzly Man’
September 28, 2005
Timothy Treadwell wasn’t doing so well in the human world. A college dropout with his hoped-for acting career going nowhere, he began drinking large quantities of alcohol. But realizing where that trail led, he opted for another path: For 13 summers, ending in 2003, Treadwell, who had been raised in middle-class comfort on Long Island, N.Y., lived among the grizzly bears of southern Alaska.
Treadwell didn’t observe the grizzlies from whatever might constitute a safe distance. His aim was to live among the bears, to be accepted almost as a member of the herd. He did so, and without weapons. For 13 summers, Treadwell watched, touched, talked to and even played with the 800-pound mounds of fur, claws and appetite. For just about anyone else, this lifestyle was insanely dangerous. For Treadwell, it made perfect sense. His existence among people was unfulfilled and getting worse; his place among the grizzlies was daring, eventful, joyful – and allowed him to put down the bottle. Moreover, he had a video camera, and in the beautiful wilderness, with bears and foxes in close proximity and his own compelling narrative to share, Treadwell could be a movie star. One can pretty well presume this was part of the plan, as he shot hundreds of hours of footage, which he frequently showed to school classes.Treadwell’s story has, in fact, made it to the screen; alas, he is not fully here to tell it. Treadwell – and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who lived amongst the grizzlies mostly to be with Timothy – died, devoured by a bear, a possibility Treadwell knew of and understood but defied to happen. So instead of being the documentarian, that task falls to Werner Herzog, the German director who proves most capable in crafting Treadwell’s story.
But for “Grizzly Man,” Herzog has been handed a bounteous cache of raw material. There is not only the extensive observational footage of bears wrestling and fishing, foxes at play. There is Treadwell himself, a high-pitched, campy oddity, a mix of Mr. Rogers and Jeremiah Johnson and Willie Wonka (Johnny Depp’s unpredictable, bizarro version). He speaks to the grizzlies and foxes as one would talk to an infant, cooing at them, sharing secrets, calling them by pet names (Mr. Chocolate, Aunt Melissa, Downey). At the same time, Treadwell is thoroughly aware of the camera – and a potential audience. Among the themes of his spiels are hatred for poachers (and even government wildlife employees who are not sufficiently dedicated to protecting the bears), his failed romances, the lease on life his new existence has given him, and the danger of what he is doing, tempered by assurances that he, and he alone, is equal to the peril. He is a character on the knife’s edge: some are going to think him an utter fool, deserving of his fate; others are going to find him daring and complex, and if he died in foolhardy fashion, better at the paws of those he loved than among a society that suited him poorly.Herzog has added interviews with family and friends, who paint a generally positive portrait of Treadwell. The interview with medical examiner Franc Fallico is perversely stagy, morbidly enchanting, and may have viewers wondering if they are watching a documentary or a “Best in Show”-type mockumentary. In one of the more unusual but ultimately effective touches, Herzog injects himself into the landscape. His narration turns into commentary as he weighs in on Treadwell’s filmmaking skills and philosophy on life and wildlife. In a crucial point, Herzog disagrees with Treadwell’s view that nature is friendly; in the eyes of the bear that probably was the one that ate Treadwell and Huguenard, Herzog sees only a “lazy, hungry” animal.
This becomes the sharp point around which “Grizzly Man” turns: Is nature – and by extension the world – brutal and chaotic, or beautiful and meaningful? It is a neat angle that two dismembered bodies doesn’t necessarily decide the question one way or the other.”Grizzly Man” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Monday through Wednesday, Oct. 3-5.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org