Sunday, June 11, 2006

Grizzly Man

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.


Trent Reimer said...

Interesting! I'll have to keep my eyes open for this one. Being an outdoorsman I'm afraid I have strong feelings on the subject matter. Bears continue to be a recurring theme in my nightmares despite the fact I have yet to be hurt or threatened by one. I did see one rear up toward a co-worker who foolishly tried to scare it off with a whistle, but after cooly assessing him it dropped back down and nonchalantly resumed its course. You have no doubt when you are in their presence - they are awesome killing machines and you remain alive by their choice. (Perhaps the RCAF could save some cash by deploying bears with parachutes instead of conventional bombs?)

It was also apparent most of them could care less about you one way or the other. Mostly they just want to randomly try chewing on different supplies when you're not looking and then skulk back into the bush when you are. Some of them even have a taste for diesel fuel - something to remember next time someone offers you bear meat. I'm more into the antifreeze loving game animals like bighorn sheep. My eyesight's not what it used to be but the meat is intoxicating!

Curious, any hint as to wether Treadwell was anticipating (or welcoming) an eventual demise at the paws of his beloved grizzlies?

DarkoV said...

Treadwell is, well was, a loony-tune of the highest order. An egoist to boot. How large of an ego? He was able to get his girlfriend mauled/semi-devoured by the same bear that was proked to attack by Treadwell, himself. How this guy is actually being eulogized by any sentinent being shows you how far the American medical care system, specifically psychiatric assistance, has dropped.

The fact that this bear was subsequently hunted down and killed is what makes this a sad movie. The bear was doing what came naturally and Treadwell, well, it's just not natural to be out there thinking it's Hey! Hey! Hey! Yogi time.

Good part of the movie! Soundtrack by Mr. Richard Thompson himself.

Whisky Prajer said...

TR - that Richard Thompson soundtrack DV mentions is something you'd appreciate too, I think. Do keep your eyes peeled for the video (shouldn't be difficult for you to find, considering it's so readily available in our village). Treadwell talks big about his potential demise at the paws of these bears ("If I die, this is how I want to go" etc.), but there are indications that this bluster was massive denial on his part, and when the inevitable finally happened, he was anything but ready to go. I'd say it's nothing short of a crime that he persuaded a young woman to tag along as second course. I can't imagine what her parents are going through.

Trent Reimer said...

DV - I'll admit, as macbre as it sounds, you and WP have me interested in the mauling sound track. Not something I anticipate one would "enjoy" hearing. I wonder why we wish to hear it?

I guess it surprises me considering I've refused to watch beheadings. I don't want to be someone who is entertained by suffering. So why do I want to hear this?

Whisky Prajer said...

You don't get to. Instead, you see the back of Herzog's head as he listens to it. You also get some extensive commentary from the coroner(?), who has a very vivid idea of exactly what happened. It's enough.

Whisky Prajer said...

I should add: the soundtrack that DV and I are so keen on is supplied by guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson.