Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Grizzly Dude

This is going to be another post about an eccentric bachelor. Yesterday B and I went to a screening of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s new documentary about the life and death (by bear mauling) of Timothy Treadwell. In case you haven’t heard of Timothy Treadwell (I hadn’t), he was a self-styled bear expert who spent something like 13 summers camping (sort of illegally) up in Alaska's Katmai National Park “protecting” the grizzly bears that live up there.

Treadwell documented a lot of his “work” on film, so much of Herzog’s film is an edited compilation of Treadwell’s own footage. It features many a quirky soliloquy showing Treadwell, a fringe of his blonde Prince Valiant haircut peeking out from under a camouflage bandanna, waxing lyrical about the loveliness of bear poop or flipping out when foxes steal a baseball cap that is "very important" to the "expedition." In manner and appearance, he reminds me a bit of a heterosexual version of Carson Kressley from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (although there is a segment of the film where he bemoans not being gay. "Timothy Treadwell is not gay. Bummer!")

Herzog avoids passing judgment on Treadwell's interactions with the bears and I’m no expert on grizzlies, but to put it kindly it's unorthodox. To put it a bit more harshly, it's intrusive. Treadwell gives all the bears cute names like Mr. Chocolate and Banjo and gets right up in their faces. In an endearing surfer dude voice, he constantly tells them he loves them and at one point even says he’s “in love” with the animals. And he clearly thinks the affection is reciprocated. Basically he talks to them like they’re cuddly pet bunnies.

It is really a testament to something (I’m not sure what) that he wasn’t killed in the first five minutes of setting foot on the peninsula. I don’t want to give too much away, but once again Werner Herzog has found an absolutely fascinating subject for a film and he mostly lets Treadwell tell his own story in his own exceedingly eccentric, and actually quite charming way. It's impossible not to like the guy, even if you feel (as I do) that his actions ultimately endangered the bears by encouraging them to abandon their natural (and self-preserving) fear of humans. Herzog steps into the film only to insert interviews with friends and acqaintances of Treadwell’s—interviews that range from being so funny that I sprayed the water I’d been drinking onto the back of the person in front of me (sorry!) to one that was so chilling it made my stomach clench and my mouth go dry.

Go see the movie. That's an order.

It would have been more or less impossible not to make an interesting film, given that Treadwell was such a colorful and entertaining character, but the film still carries Herzog’s trademark fatalism. In one of the few instances where Herzog actually interjects his own perspective, he remarks upon Treadwell’s sentimental and romanticized view of life and the world and then says something about how he, Herzog, believes the world to be filled with injustice, chaos, and despair. I know I didn’t quite get the quote right, but I know he definitely said chaos and I’m 80% sure injustice was mentioned as well. At any rate, it’s safe to say that Treadwell was a "glass half full" man; and Herzog is a "glass half empty" kind of a guy.

So, yeah, the film just reminded me of what a great filmmaker Werner Herzog is—I know I’ve written nothing here that quite illustrates that. (It’s late and I suck suck suck at film/literary criticism.) I’ll just say that I’ve been a fan of his since I was in college and saw my first Werner Herzog film, Aguirre, Wrath of God. I encourage you to read the linked review if you haven’t seen the film. Also, there are a couple of photos of the late great Klaus Kinski, looking exquisitely unhinged. Even if you don't want to read the review, take a second to click and scroll down to the photos.

My god, what a great movie.

Other recommended Herzog films:
My Best Fiend (documentary about Kinski) A+
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Burden of Dreams


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