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March 01, 2006

A snuff movie (almost) with grizzly bears: Grizzly Man - Werner Herzog

Posted by Richard D. North

Grizzly Man
Directed and Narrated by Werner Herzog
certificate 15, 2005

Grizzly Man is in part about bears, and perhaps especially the bear who got hungry or angry enough to eat Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend in 2003. We see everything but the munching. (We almost do overhear it, and we'll get to that.) There is a moment, straight from Struwwelpeter, when a guide points at a carcass and says:

That's the bear with Timothy in it.
This comes as Werner Herzog fills in the blanks in what is otherwise Tim Treadwell's own footage. It's material which would add up to a decent wildlife movie - but is more interesting as an extended suicide note.

It is also intriguing because this subject is so ripe in American thought. Wilderness and its wildlife figures in the US psyche in a way west Europeans can only imagine and the grizzly has been emblematic to people such as Doug Peacock, a friend of Ed Abbey whose novel The Monkey Wrench Gang is said to have inspired Earth First!, the wilderness militants. Peacock, the author of a memoir called The Grizzly Years, is one of a band of people arguing that the test of wilderness policy is partly how much of it there is, and partly how grizzly-friendly it is.

If we begin Grizzly Man thinking that being eaten was hard cheese for Tim, we end it surely not merely persuaded that he was lucky to last so long but also that the bear was welcome to him. This is a self-portrait of a man of unendurable silliness, and he really did seem to have done everything but demand to be eaten by the "friends" he thought he "loved". We also end up frankly disliking the little tick: it's one thing to be careless on one's own account, but to put a reluctant girl on the menu looks like nastiness.

Our Grizzly Man hero was using a fake name, and only seemed like a loner. Actually, his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was often with him, and though he sought to cut her out of his film, Herzog puts her back in, which is only fair granted that she ended up inside the same bear. Maybe Treadwell was something of a Grey Owl. You perhaps remember the unmemorable Richard Attenborough and Pierce Brosnan movie chronicling this so-called pioneer of conservation, who seemed to be a native loner in a log cabin, befriending beavers, but who was actually Archie Belaney from Hastings, living bigamously in a National Park, and about to hit the road as a showman in the manner of Buffalo Bill Cody.

Grey Owl was a showman: a deceitful man with one performance. Treadwell had several personae, and often did multiple takes of himself with a bear in the background. He would be Tim, the Wild Man who could out-stare a bear. He would be Tim the Mowgli-style Bear-Boy, all but suckled by these protective creatures. He would be the angry radical defending the bears from man. He would be a Jerry Springer, turning bear life into a jokey metaphor for trailer-trash soap opera. In the best of these moments, he was just a little like Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter of Australia Zoo, and a regular on our TV screens as he wrestles with most kinds of menacing wildlife.

Perhaps the core moment was when we have been looking at the face of a particularly 'ornery grizzly which it is posited was new to Tim's territory and may have been the one that ate him. It is just possible that this bear didn't know Treadwell well enough not to dine on him. But since bears eat their own children, that's a stretch. More likely, Tim had stayed on too late in a hungry year. Werner Herzog, the film's director says:

Tim may have seen all sorts of things in this bear's eyes, but all I can see is indifferent hunger.

Herzog adds rather little to the movie. His voice-over is portentous and thinks it's being philosophical, but he is less interesting than the various Alaskans who give us their views on the weird saga. He is also a shade arch, in the manner of a Nick Broomfield. At one crucial moment, we are allowed to watch him sensitively wince and flinch as he listens on headsets to the soundtrack which caught the very moment of the mauling of Treadwell's girlfriend. Fair do's. Maybe it's footage we shouldn't have access to: but why tease us with it?

Tim Treadwell was very brave, except that it is just possible that he was so delusional that he really did believe he was on the bears' wave-length and therefore safe. It is not clear that he sought martyrdom, but he seems to have flirted with it. He breaks the modern golden rule taught us by the likes of David Attenborough (who has recently been very scathing about Born Free). This is that animals are fascinating, but they are not like us. Tim anthropomorphised for America Disney couldn't have done better. He certainly got up close and personal: he and his camera were often well within that notional zone wherein an animal's thoughts turn from flight to fight.

Perhaps his biggest mistake was in believing that he was of any use. He insists that he is all that stands between the bears and destruction. But actually, no-one's around, no-one's harming them and his one attempt to feed them is pathetic. Indeed, the park authorities even have to shoot the bear which ate him in case it's got the taste for humans. True, four bears in his area have been poached since Treadwell's death but even so the carnage associated with his "protection" work seems a poor deal.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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Dear Richard,

I find it sad that you cannot critisize a man without resulting to low-blows, cheap shots and downright insults. This article would have retained quite a lot of merit and worth had it not been filled with sarcastic remarks that belittle a man who is now deceased. It is one thing to insult another person when they have the means to respond and defend themselves, it is another to besmirch the name of a deceased person and ultimately affect the opinion of the naive public when they should be entitled to develop their own opinions without useless slander clouding their own research. Excuse the run-off sentance.

Just my two cents, but I'm afraid to say that perhaps your biggest mistake was in believing that this piece of writing retains credability whilst voicing a ridiculous amount of slander.

Posted by: Carl Langdon at March 14, 2006 02:11 AM

You may want to watch the movie again. Your opinions are insteresting, but you often cite innacurately.

Just for instance...

"That's the bear with Timothy in it."
"Tim may have seen all sorts of things in this bear's eyes, but all I can see is indifferent hunger."

not nearly accurate quotations from the movie.

Willy Fulton holds a piece of a bone he finds on the ground and in reference to a story he is telling says, "That the bear they found Tim in."

Herzog's narration: "I see no kinship - no understanding. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature and a half-bored interest in food."

Posted by: Karl Blumenthal at March 18, 2006 01:48 AM

I recently sat with some park rangers that work with bears in the Teton national forest. It is interesting to note that they talk about how stupid he was.
The bears got used to him. But they are all still predators. He was hoping to save them insted he just let to the death of the one that he was trying to save. Rangers kill any animal that takes human life. Endangered or not, human life still takes presidence over the animal.
So in trying to same the animal he was foolish enough to let himself get that close to one that would eventually kill him. And the result it was killed, and people believe even more that they are dangerous.

Posted by: D nielson at May 15, 2006 04:29 AM

I completely agree with your analysis and tone. The film had poignant moments, but ultimately presented pathology as an instance of redemption and depth (here I disagree with some critics who suggest that the portrayal was not sympathetic to Treadwell). In fact, Treadwell's conduct was misguided, unprincipled, and dangerous to others and the wildlife he sought to protect. The only deep aspect of the film (apart from some beautiful shots) is its portrayal of an American tragedy, but it does so in such a way as to excessively obscure its tragic aspects.

Posted by: J. King at July 3, 2006 04:47 PM

too much analysis here... basically this film was Boooorrrrrrrrrrrrring.
the only good bit was the Bear fight.

Posted by: Grizzly Graham at July 10, 2006 11:09 AM

This review is too wordy... all that need to be said:

Treadwell was a flakey, misguided twinky.

...and twinkies taste good.

Posted by: Cowicide at August 13, 2006 07:48 PM

I just watched the film. This essay is spot-on. I must say that by the end of the film, I was ready to toss the bears a bottle of steak sauce and tell them to have at it. Shame about the young lady, but I wish she had known better. Tim Treadwell obviously didn't.

Posted by: Sven at September 8, 2006 07:46 PM

"Herzog adds rather little to the movie"

You mean apart from selecting the footage, editing it, shaping the narrative path of the film, choosing which people to interview, getting it funded in the first place...

Because obviously, the choice of which footage to show and in which order doesn't matter. In fact, without Herzog, this movie wouldn't exist at all. So he adds very little. Yes. Well put.

Herzog has disdain for the verite style of documentary, and describes his own documentaries as "lies that reveal an ecstatic truth". Check out Lessons Of Darkness, the film he made of the Kuwait oil fires, for a clearer example. He uses only real footage of real events including interview footage, but uses them to craft a science fiction film that is against all war without ever naming the specific war the footage is taken from.

And as other people have pointed out, if you're going to demean Herzog's voice over you should at least have the grace to quote him accurately. Bad reviewer. No biscuit.

Posted by: Pearce at October 2, 2006 04:08 AM

I loved the movie and I also love your Snuff... commentary. Together, they made a wonderfully entertaining evening.

Posted by: Fozzy Bear at October 7, 2006 08:27 AM

I am afraid that Mr. Treadwell's life will be punctuated with an appearance in a South Park episode.

Posted by: sam at October 8, 2006 09:01 PM
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