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Death and the kind warrior
A region 2 DVD review of GRIZZLY MAN by Slarek
 
"No-one knew that, no-one ever frigging knew, that there are times when
my life is on the precipice of death, that these bears can bite, they can kill,
and if I am weak, I go down. I love them with all my heart, I will protect
them, I will die for them, but I will not die at their paws and claws. I will
fight, I will be strong, I'll be one of them. I will be....master."
Timothy Treadwell, killed in 2003 by a grizzly bear

 

The story of Timothy Treadwell seems so perfectly suited to the sensibilities of maverick German filmmaker Werner Herzog that it actually comes as a surprise to discover that the project landed in his lap almost by chance. Visiting the offices of producer Erik Nelson, he was looking for his car keys on the producer's disorganised table, and Nelson, believing Herzog was looking at something in particular, handed him an article on Treadwell and told him they were making a film of his story. The director took the article, read it and rushed back to ask who was directing the film. Nelson admitted that the job had sort-of fallen to him, and Herzog told him, "No, I will direct this movie."*

Herzog has been repeatedly fascinated by outsiders, both those who arrive in society from the wilderness (The Enigma of Kasper Hauser) and those who abandon society itself in pursuit of a dream (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, the Wrath of God), and whatever else you might throw at Timothy Treadwell, he was certainly a dream-chaser and in his small way sits up there with the rest of Herzog's anti-heroes. An ex-alcoholic and failed actor, he reinvented himself as a self-styled 'kind warrior', travelling to the Alaskan peninsular for thirteen consecutive summers to camp, usually alone, in the realm of the grizzly bear, creatures he believed it was his mission in life to protect, despite the fact that they were in National Park territory and not really under threat. In a touch of irony that was nonetheless tinged with inevitability, in 2003 he was killed and eaten by one of the very animals he had repeatedly pledged he would die for.

What initially attracted Herzog, and what makes Treadwell's story so cinematically fascinating, is that on the last five exhibitions he took a video camera with him and shot over a hundred hours of footage of the bears, other wildlife, and – crucially – himself. As Herzog trawled through the tapes he discovered not only some remarkable animal footage, but a fascinating insight into the mind of a dedicated but troubled and ultimately misguided man, whose death, in retrospect, seems less surprising than his until-then continued survival. Treadwell's devotion to the animals is clear, but his understanding of their true nature is frequently called into question by his own behaviour. Despite his oft-spoken warnings of the danger the bears represent, there is the sense that he never really believed his own words, and that they were delievered to camera to enhance his self-made image as a man who regularly looked death in the face but knew no fear. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this springs not from some macho act of bravado for his own camera, but a genuine belief that he had developed a kinship with the animals, that they would not think to harm him because he is effectively one of them. Despite his statements to the contrary, he never really sees the bears as the potentially deadly predators they are, rather as cuddly, Disneyfied creatures only a couple of steps away from the teddy bear he still shared his tent with. He gives them names like Mr. Chocolate, The Grinch and Sergeant Brown, scolds them when they get too close and moments later coos declarations of love and blows affectionate kisses at them. Over and over he places himself in a position that just seems to beg for one of the bears to take a swipe at him, and more than once you suspect you'll actually see it happen, not least when he strips to his shorts to join one of them for a swim.

Herzog has selected and edited the footage with real purpose and care, in the process showing us all sides of Treadwell, from the naïve man-child and self-centred egotist to the troubled self-analyst and passionate conservationist. He interweaves this material with interviews with friends, family and acquaintances, some of which occasionally border on the surreal, something emphasised by a camera that is prone to drift towards interviewees who sometimes speak directly to it. This slight reality dislocation is most evident in the interviews with coroner Dr. Franc G. Fallico, whose practiced artificiality turns even the description of the grisly remains of the bear attack on Treadwell into slightly creepy performance, one that is broken up into a series of very different and specifically chosen shots like it might be in a fictional feature. Elsewhere the interviews are engagingly funny (ex-girlfriend Jewel Palpvak's description of how she and Timothy met), surprisingly cold-hearted (the helicopter rescue pilot who suggests that Treadwell "got what he deserved") or encroached on by locational elements, as with pilot Willy Fulton – who regularly flew Treadwell to his camp and was the one who discovered his body – whose interview is conducted amidst a swarm of buzzing insects.

Structurally the film unfolds in engagingly non-linear fashion. Knowing that Treadwell's death is the most famous aspect of his story, Herzog deals with it up front, the first shot announcing his timeline as 1957-2003, with the death itself covered in specific detail just eight minutes in. Details of his childhood and early life emerge much later, by when we have gone one-to-one with Treadwell for long enough to know a little about (and in an odd way rather like) the man whose life we are looking back on, much as you might with a new-found acquaintance.

For the most part, though, it's Treadwell's own footage that steals the show. Comprised of a mixture of wildlife documentary, video diary, staged inserts and promotion material for his organisation Grizzly People (of which Jewel is a key member), it runs the gamut of emotional responses, being awe-inspiring, alarming, exciting, troubling and at times hilarious. At his most involved, Treadwell is a too-easy target for mockery (the accompanying featurette contains an obvious example of this), but he does set himself up for the fool at times, emotionally mourning the death of a bee that died collecting pollen only to have it revive and carry on its business, or commenting on the aftermath of an awesomely shot bear fight like an excited reporter at a WWF match. Elsewhere his camera catches him loudly begging for rain to Jesus, Allah and "the Hindu floaty thing" (rain that subsequently arrives in torrents, it has to be said), interpreting a smiley face drawn on a rock as a "very fucking frightening" death threat, and squealing with excitement at the discovery of a large mound of bear dung ("I can feel the poop! This was just inside of her!"). The scene that prompted the loudest laugh in the cinema is also one of Treadwell's most telling to-camera moments, as a round-up of the latest expedition turns into a expletive-filled rant aimed at just about everyone who has ever given him a moment's aggravation, only to switch suddenly and unexpectedly back into Pleasant Presenter mode as if the previous few minutes hadn't occurred.

The film's acknowledged missing link is Amy Huguenard, Treadwell's last girlfriend and the one who died with him in the so-named Bear Maze. She did not share Treadwell's confidence with the animals and was genuinely frightened of them, but accompanied him nonetheless and even stayed with him when he was attacked, despite his pleas for her to flee. That the two were apparently on the verge of breaking up and that the fatal return to the Bear Maze was an unscheduled, spur-of-the-moment decision on Treadwell's part simply underlines the specific tragedy of her death. Any insight she or her family may have been able to offer was lost with her and her family's refusal to take part in the film.

But if Amy's tragedy was that she was killed in a place she never really wanted to be, we come to realise over the course of the film that Treadwell's death was ultimately no less terrible. In an extraordinary final twist, Treadwell actually recorded the sound of his own final moments on a camcorder whose lens cap he did not have time to remove. Herzog wisely chooses not to include it, but in the film's most emotionally gut-wrenching moment is shown, from behind, listening to the tape, fighting back tears as Jewel watches on in distress. "You must never listen to this," he tells Jewel soberly. "I think you should not keep it. You should destroy it." It can't help but make you wonder how you would react in the same situation if you had a tape of the death of a loved one in your possession. It would be a hard-hearted person who would not be moved by this scene.

It is Herzog's presence in the voice-over that provides the film with its structural backbone, occasionally breaking off from the storytelling to come to Treadwell's defence, "not as a conservationist, but as a film-maker," and to highlight the unexpected beauty of moments in Treadwell's footage that might perhaps otherwise have passed most of us by. But he also provides an equally entrenched counterpoint to Treadwell's idealisation of nature, an opposing viewpoint that was vividly expressed back in 1982 in Burden of Dreams during the filming of Fitzcarraldo in the Amazonian jungle, when he railed against nature and described it as "obscene," a view here confirmed when he states "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder."

Fellow reviewer Camus has said to me on more than one occasion that it does not matter a hoot what a person is passionate about as long as they are passionate about something, and you'll find precious few examples of a more driving passion than that which consumes Timothy Treadwell. That he was ultimately living a delusion seems beside the point, and as many of us sit on our couches watching DVDs and enjoying third-hand adventure through the efforts of others, its all too easy to dismiss out-of-hand Treadwell's efforts as cranky or misguided. But although he may have been foolhardy, difficult to actually like and more than a little detached from reality, Herzog's remarkable film shows us a man who may have lived on the edge and died prematurely, but whose life nonetheless had purpose and meaning beyond what most of us will ever even try to achieve. In the final shot, as Treadwell wanders up river with two grizzlies seemingly in friendly tow to the strains of Richard Thompson's gorgeously soulful improvised score, we are left with the sense that the world is a slightly sadder and less interesting place without him.

this version

Before I get onto the usual technical specs I have to point out that the version released on DVD differs slightly from the one shown in cinemas, and thus from the one Herzog prepared for public viewing. The DVD version is missing a brief scene in which Treadwell appears on the David Letterman show to talk about his work. This is a particularly interesting sequence, in part because it provides evidence of Herzog's commentary claim that Treadwell had reached national celebrity status, but more crucially for Letterman's semi-jocular question to Treadwell in which he wonders if one day we'll be watching a story about Timothy Treadwell being eaten by grizzlies, which provokes raucous audience laughter but chillingly foreshadows Treadwell's demise. The scene was apparently removed at Letterman's request, and while I can understand his motivation, this still pisses me off big time. He said what he said and if he now feels his comments have backfired then he should be ready to live with it. More to the point, the clip was obviously cleared for inclusion in the film, and and it seems a little schizophrenic to later change your mind and demand a recut, which was only possible anyway because of Letterman's status and influence. Apparently the film screened on US cable TV with this scene intact, so keep your DVD recorders on the ready when it eventually gets shown here, just in case.

sound and vision

Treadwell's footage was shot on mini-DV video on a Sony VX2000 and Herzog's on Super-16 film, and the two very different sources were then mastered to High Definition video before being transferred to 35mm for theatrical distribution. With this in mind, the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer here is very good, although is a little soft in places than and occasionally lacking in punch. While this might be expected from such sub-35mm source material, I have to say that I was struck by just how good some (though not all) of Treadwell's footage looked in the cinema following its transfer to film, and as a front row junkie I really notice picture quality flaws. Contrast and colour appear fine, and there are no other evident problems with the transfer or the print.

The are two soundtracks available, Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby 5.1 surround. The differences are mainly ones of spread and the finer points of fidelity, but the 5.1 track is just preferable in this respect, especially in its reproduction of Richard Thompson's music. Oh, and the insects in that pilot interview.

extra features

It would be logical to include some more background info on Timothy Treadwell or his organisation Grizzly People here, but all we have is a documentary on the recording of the score. Great. Well actually it is great. My initial scepticism about the prospect of a 54 minute look at the creation of the music score soon dissolved when I started watching it. Not only is In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Sessions (53:48) a very well shot and compiled piece, but the process of scoring the film proves to be a fascinating one. Rather than commission a music score in the traditional manner, Herzog brought in guitar supremo Richard Thompson, he of Fairport Convention, and asked him and his fellow musicians to essentially improvise a soundtrack, to match the film's mood with music that would be both soulful and raw, melancholic and yet also vibrant. He wanted, in essence, the sort of score that Treadwell himself might have chosen had he had the chance to match music to his footage. Just watching the musicians at work is a joy in itself, and the sessions are nicely intercut with casual interviews with Herzog in the studio, who says in all earnest that he would willingly give ten years of his life to be able to play a musical instrument to the standard being demonstrated here.

The Trailer (2:20) captures the tone and content of the film well.

I should add that the most unfortunate exclusion from this UK release is an interview conducted with the director by Mark Kermode for the BBC that has itself earned a small place in film history for the moment, early on in the piece, when Herzog is unexpectedly shot with an air rifle. If you haven't caught this piece then it's not too late – assuming they don't move or delete it you can find it on the BBC web site by clicking here (you'll need a RealPlayer plugin to be able to see it).

summary

As the documentary feature shifts its focus from issues to individuals (and I'm a big fan of the issue films, I should say), some remarkable cinematic character studies are emerging, one of the most prominent and successful in recent months being Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro's Murderball, another film you should make every effort to see. Grizzly Man is one of the best of this new bunch, in part because its subject is so interesting, but crucially because of what Herzog does with his material, presenting several sides of a complex man with equal weight, making it possible to both laugh at and yet feel sympathy and even, occasionally, a little affection for Treadwell. It plays particularly well to a large audience, but I was pleased that my second viewing proved every bit as rewarding, in part for how much more I appreciated what Herzog was doing with scene and shot juxtaposition, and in the process I began to empathise with Treadwell's rejection of society and embracing of the wild, yet still find myself running with Herzog's darker view of the world and its creatures. The film deserves to find an audience wider than it will probably get, and I would encourage anyone who has not yet seen the film to do so immediately and spread the word. Grizzly Man is a documentary about nature, both human and animal, but is not a nature documentary, at least in the normally defined sense. But it is informative, sad, scary, beautiful, thrilling, insightful and funny. Now what more could you really ask? So catch it before the on-the-cards Hollywood dramatisation turns the story into something it most definitely was not.**

 


* Quoted from the Mark Kermode interview with Herzog for the BBC,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/nolavconsole/ukfs_news/hi/newsid_4680000/newsid_4681000/bb_rm_4681050.stm

** Not a joke, unfortunately. Leonardo DiCaprio's production company Appian Way have teamed up with Sony/Columbia Pictures to develop a feature based on Treadwell's story.

Technical information on the shooting of the film was obtained from an interview with Herzog conducted by Darroch Greer for Millimeter.
http://preview.millimeter.com/mag/video_fade_black_40/

Treadwell's charity Grizzly People have a very good web site with more information about Timothy and his work at: http://www.grizzlypeople.com/

Grizzly Man

USA 2005
100 mins
director
Werner Herzog
starring .
Timothy Treadwell
Werner Herzog
Jewel Palovak
Franc G. Fallico

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Sessions documentary
Trailer
distributor
revolver
release date
Out Now
review posted
18 May 2006

related review
Burden of Dreams

See all of Slarek's reviews