Given the deluge of accolades I was exposed to prior to seeing Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, it was reasonable to expect some disappointment. It still seems a little strange to me that this is hailed as such a brilliant work: there were stretches where the film felt more like an extended episode of Jackass gone horribly awry. But there is (thankfully) a qualitative difference between the way Werner Herzog and Johnny Knoxville indulge, and when the film was finally over, I was astonished at how deeply it had affected me.
It quickly becomes obvious that Herzog has found something of a doppelganger in Timothy Treadwell. Herzog is infamous for subjecting himself, his actors and his hapless film crews to excruciating conditions, preferably in a remote corner of the jungle. Treadwell was in the habit of taking a camera, and occasionally a companion, into the Alaskan wilderness to frolic amongst grizzly bears. That camera was always on, and Treadwell was always talking. As for Herzog, he can choose his material, but the story inevitably becomes about himself. And though he doesn't run off at the mouth, his documentaries will never walk the objectivist's path of "silent photographer" -- Herzog must be heard.
Again and again, Treadwell demonstrates an unhinged perspective on his place in the cosmos. He films a flesh-ripping battle between two grizzlies, one of them nearly 12-feet tall, the other a mere 10. When the smaller bear lies prone in defeat, Treadwell approaches the bleeding hulk and chirps a few cheerful Pollyanna bromides in condolence. Treadwell offers a moral by example: if you treat these creatures as if they were your neighbor's dachshund, things are sure to end badly for you.
Herzog asserts at film's end that he can see no recognition in the eyes of these bears, just the dark existential reality of a violent universe intent on extinguishing humanity's flame. Treadwell thought the opposite, that he'd found kinship among these behemoth carnivores. And while I'm more accepting of Herzog's Teutonic stoicism than I am of Treadwell's naivete, I can't help thinking these two extremes suffer a similar lack of perspective. Treadwell thought his existence in the wild was charmed, and for this lack of insight was finally eaten by a bear; Herzog considers life something of a curse, an enduring struggle against a Will to Extinguish, yet lives on regardless of the peril he courts. Somewhere, someone is snickering -- and occasionally during this film that someone was me.