Review: Grizzly Man (2005, Herzog)


There is such a wide array of ruminations that course through me as I watch Grizzly Man for the second time. I first saw it about five years ago during a Documentary Fest I had with my aunt. It was my first Herzog documentary. I am now realizing it took far too long for me to revisit this film. I considered it one of my favorites, and to be sure, one of my very favorite documentaries. But I have always been a cinephile stuck somewhere between endless first viewings and endless repeat viewings of comfort films from my past. I have been trying to get better with revisiting films that mean a lot to me and getting to know them better. I have always resented my own preference to discover the new rather than the length of time I take in cherishing the ones that make an impact. And what brought about watching this for the second time was the event of showing it to my boyfriend who had not seen it. But I am veering off topic. Suffice it to say that Grizzly Man is a film that leaves an indelible mark for many reasons, not least in how Herzog recognizes the good, the bad and the ugly of Timothy Treadwell.

Herzog performs a balancing act of relaying his observations without guiding the viewer’s thoughts, even as he skillfully highlights to enhance a point he wants to make. Grizzly Man is somewhat judgmental yet somehow remains nonjudgmental. One does not have to look far to see why Herzog was drawn to this story. The harsh realities of nature and the unstable man who defies the line between the wild and himself. The obsessiveness of the experience and connection with what is sought out.

Herzog holds an admiration and a sadness for Treadwell. He smartly stays away from denigration or hero worship. Because the truth is, even though subjects in the film tend to take one extreme or the other, he deserves neither. An urge to proclaim feelings of pity come to mind. But that is not entirely the case either. How can I pity someone who was able to live life how he chose to for over a decade? This desperate satisfaction, this essential component to his life was something he was able to accomplish, have and cherish for an uncommon length of time.

The structure of Grizzly Man is not to be undervalued. The death of Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huguenard is covered immediately, and is periodically revisited throughout, leaving its unforgettable stain on everything that follows. As we continue forward, Herzog slowly pulls the curtain further and further back. His perception and understandings are as complex as he can make them by the end, given the runtime and the invisible wall that prohibits us from truly knowing all the facts and psychology of a life.

Many watching are likely to know a bit about Timothy Treadwell. Still, Herzog begins with an unfettered allowance of Treadwell’s purer emotions, letting them exist for that they are. The enthusiasm, love, devotion and well-meaning gentleness of his exploits are introduced with their sincerity. By the end, that sincerity remains, but additionally so do the many troubled elements of Treadwell’s being.

The film’s subject inspires a wide variety of opinions, ranging from fierce admiration to a total lack of empathy. I guess I would fall somewhere in between.

On the one hand, I do admire and almost envy his ability to look at nature through rose-colored glasses. He was an outsider who carved out a life for himself  at the Katmai National Park. I certainly empathize with his blatantly apparent mental instability. We are who we are, and his troubles remained persistent throughout his life, however willing or unwilling he was to admit that at various intervals.

I admire his devotion and his love for the animals, as corny as it sounds. Was it sentimentalized, extremely anthropomorphic and misguided? Yes. But it was ultimately pure and well-meaning. His freelance work in schools all over inspired children, making them enthusiastic about preserving wildlife. Plus, his relationship with the foxes I found to be actual and legitimate, not to mention adorable. And ultimately, his relationship with the bears was legitimate as well, if only because they were so for him and him alone.

Herzog commends and gives due to what he is able to capture with his camera. There is undeniably an intimate quality to some of the animal footage that differs from the distance felt in other footage of its kind.

Yet Treadwell tends to frustrates me to no end. I admit to outright resenting him for a number of reasons (all of which are addressed in some way, if not explored), harsh as it may sound. His self-denial resulted in an unsubstantiated mission statement to ‘protect the bears’. But he wasn’t protecting any bears. Far from it; he actually did more harm than good. His and Amie’s death perpetuated the killing of two bears as well as a posthumous increase of poaching in the National Park. He acclimated bears and foxes to the presence of humans, possibly rising a bear’s willingness to approach and cause harm in the future.

He conveniently chose to ‘protect’ bears in a National Park, a protected land, where the bears were already safe. Poaching was not an issue and ‘intruders’ were usually harmless and/or people from the National Park Service whose jobs Treadwell constantly undermined.

None of this is a revelation, and has been covered before in the film and in other media. I say all this in an effort to lay out how I feel about Treadwell.

The bears did not need Treadwell; he needed them. He needed them so desperately, that he whole-heartedly convinced himself that these wild animals were in danger. The scene where he all but attributes the land’s much-needed rain to his desire for it so be so is a perfect example. He created an artificial purpose that surrounded his very being, becoming his meaningless mantra. I guess what frustrates me is that his methods perpetuate the stereotype of the uninformed and misguided activist. I feel that his concerns and passion are so genuine but also so valid and applicable to countless, and I mean countless, other animal activist causes. I wish be had been able to fuel his fervor into something more useful and less selfish.

But he was just coming off a near-fatal addiction, which he was never cured from. It is clear he simply substituted one addiction for another. And this addiction is the one that ended up being fatal.

It is also tough not to see the subconscious vanity in his actions. His videos and shot set-ups are so deliberate and driven by a fascination with himself. It is fitting that his only (for the most part) companion out in the wilderness was his camera. That acting ambition never left completely. Again, I do not think he ever meant this, but his self-destructive narcissism is hard to miss.

I sound insensitive but I do not mean to be. In the end, I strongly sympathize with Treadwell. I sympathize with his inability to function in the real world. I sympathize with his feelings of isolation and loneliness. I sympathize with his feigned connection with the bears. I sympathize with the overwhelming sense of belonging he felt while in the wild.

All of this reeks of condescension, but it is not meant to. Herzog does not look up to him or down on him and we should not either. It does Treadwell much less credit by doing this.

The filmmaker largely focuses on what Treadwell shot over the years of his expeditions. Herzog showcases the bear enthusiast’s stunning animal footage. More importantly, the majority of what is shown focuses on Treadwell himself and his ability to indulge in his extremes in the place he called home. The camera allows him a voice to another; we get an intimate insight into him because in these moments he is entirely himself. He constantly proclaims his love for the animals. Just as constantly, he proclaims his willingness to die for them. His insistence on this shows that he not only means it, but fully expects this to happen some day. I would not categorize this as a death wish as many others do. It is clear he wanted his experiences to last as long as he could. But he knew he would die this way, and accepted it, almost waiting for it.

The footage chosen shows Treadwell’s penchant for working himself up into a frenzy. Close friend and former girlfriend Jewel Palovak says at one point that he had extreme highs and lows. He went on an anti-depressant at one point, but stopped because he felt those aspects of him were integral to his personality. We can see some of this extremity in his videos.

In editing, Herzog and Joe Bini have captured the innate awkwardness of documentary interviews without allowing it to distract. He lingers for a few extra seconds, keeping with the subject on the screen slightly beyond their purpose. This is most evident with the coroner, who seems an oddly self-conscious and rabid fellow. He always sounds like he is reading off cue cards. The scene where he gives Jewel Timothy’s still-ticking wristwatch  has a hypnotic artificiality to it, almost like something out of a David Lynch film. At one point as the coroner spills all the grimy details and he is right up in the camera’s face. When he is done, the camera slowly pulls away, showing him from a distance looking awkward next to his autopsy table, not knowing at all what to do with himself.

Herzog’s voiceover narration is always welcome even if it, at this point, comes loaded with memories of its parodies. He is able to make his own observations personal, and thus, not factual. He allows for his observations without ever deeming they must be ours. In a medium so subject to manipulation, this remains a distinct quality of his I highly appreciate.

We see footage of a particularly intense tirade of Treadwell’s, which randomly springs from what is supposed to be a simple outro. It consists of him telling off the National Park Service to the camera. As he continues in a string of curses and periodically obscene gestures, Herzog narrates over the footage, marking this distinction:

“Now Treadwell crosses a line with the Park Service which we will not cross. He attacks the individuals with whom he has worked for 13 years. It is clear to me that the Park Service is not Treadwell’s real enemy. There’s a larger and more implacable adversary out there, the people’s world and civilization. He only has mockery and contempt for it. His rage is almost incandescent, artistic. The actor in his film has taken over from the filmmaker.”

Herzog intersperses the narration throughout Treadwell’s rant; the result is that at times we are left with the visual evidence of his rage filtered through the forced perspective of how Herzog sees the incident. His spacing keeps Herzog from taking over by giving us his observances in deliberate doses. It is one of the few times Herzog forces us to take something in as he sees it because he narrates as it happens. He chooses his moments very wisely and is part of what makes this an astonishing film.

I must make a note about Amie Huegenard. I tread on this only because I feel the comments made in regards to her completely undermine that women, believe it or not, actually have minds of their own and are capable of making their own decisions. I feel truly awful and am full of remorse about what happened to both Treadwell and his girlfriend. But to suggest that Treadwell brought Amie down with him disregards her individuality as a person. Uncomfortable as she may have been, she alone made the choice to go. Journal entries suggest that she was worried about his fanaticism and wanted to leave. It seemed likely that she would have left him had they returned and it is truly horrible that she was never able to act on this.

Grizzly Man stirs up a lot of feelings in a lot of people. It is about one man and his decision to continually risk his life for the animals and landscape that were quite literally his life support. It is also about man and nature, questioning where the line now lies between the two. Timothy Treadwell made a choice, and he died for that choice.

I do not find Treadwell’s death to be tragic. He got a lot out of what he did. The fact that it was a conscious choice he knew would lead to his death makes it impossible for me to tack that label onto it. It gives him more credit to deny him the word.

If anything is tragic, it is that this was the only way he could feel alive. That it came to this extremity of habitat and ‘mission’ for him to want to live. To say Timothy Treadwell is a fascinating subject is an understatement. His footage gives not only beautiful visuals of Alaskan wildlife, but intimate insight into the man at the center of it all. Werner Herzog skillfully works through the footage to create a sobering portrait of a man who made a choice to live with the creatures he loved.

 

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10 thoughts on “Review: Grizzly Man (2005, Herzog)

  1. chandlerswainreviews says:

    What an extremely intelligent analysis: a worthy commentary to revisit after viewing this fascinating film.

  2. In my Intro to Film classes I always show either this or The Thin Blue Line to illustrate non-fiction filmmaking. You really get to the heart of what makes this film special. I really like that you focus on the specific decisions that Herzog makes regarding voice over narration and how the film is structured. Those are the things that ultimately elevate GRIZZLY MAN above the freak show it might have been in the hands of another director.

    1. The Thin Blue Line is fantastic. There are still a lot of Errol Morris films I must see. Thank you so much for reading. I agree that this so easily could have become a film that was standard and sensational, but Herzog brought things to a mesmerizing level of quality.

  3. kloipy says:

    I concur. I really like Herzog’s films. But his docs are always incredible. Take ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ which turned more into a rumination of life and existance than it did about science in Antarctica. Grizzly Man is another. I love the questions Herzog posits in his documentaries. Always interesting. Great review!

  4. I’m a big Herzog fan and this was an excellent documentary. Great and very thorough analysis. Saw Into the Abyss recently and that’s also a great one…

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