Sunday, October 31, 2010
By Eric Jessen 10/29/2010
Some sick personality trait of mine and film director Werner Herzog had us instantly drawn to the story of Timothy Treadwell, particularly the circumstances of his death. If you're not familiar with the story; Treadwell is the man who lived with bears over the course of thirteen summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve, filmed himself for the last five, until he was eaten by a bear in 2003. Grizzly Man is the documentary put together by Werner Herzog using Treadwell's surviving footage.
Perhaps out of a common cynicism and overall surliness, I think both Herzog and I looked to the story of Treadwell to affirm personal beliefs about man's relationship to nature. As opposed to Herzog, the notion I looked to affirm was somewhat petty. Having grown up with little or no connection to animals I've always found people who feel an emotional bond with their pet unbearably annoying, especially when they speak to them like they would an infant. I always believed people and their pets are as true a bond as children and their imaginary friends. So for me Treadwell was an example of someone whose emotional bond with animals was ultimately proven to be a lie.
Herzog on the other hand looked to affirm his belief that the world is a cruel and violent place. Herzog says on the soundtrack for Grizzly Man, “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” And despite the hours of footage of Treadwell living amongst bears, sometimes even touching them, Herzog says he sees in the bears not the love and connection Treadwell believed he and the bears had, but a “blank stare and a half bored interest in food.”
Herzog was also fascinated by the madness of Treadwell: why he seemed to have a death wish. Treadwell himself admits on camera, “My life is on the precipice of death...If I show weakness, I'm dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces – I'm dead.” (Of course this is exactly what ends up happening. When Treadwell appeared on Late Show with David Letterman even Letterman asks, “Is it going to happen that we a read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?”) And despite this Treadwell idealizes the bears, almost deifies them. He gives each of them names and speaks of their wisdom. In one strange sequence in Grizzly Man when he finds a pile of excrement of one of his favorite bears, “Wendy's poop,” he exults, “It was inside her.”
But could it be that Treadwell was simply showing off for the camera. Many friends of Treadwell say in Herzog's documentary that Treadwell just wanted to be a star. Treadwell is visibly aware of the camera at all times. In the almost one-hundred hours of footage Treadwell took while in Alaska he's constantly putting himself in the foreground and the bears in the background. He seemingly becomes more the subject than the bears.
Creating an image for himself seems foremost on Treadwells mind. We learn in Herzog's documentary that this has long been an obsession of Treadwell's. Once an aspiring actor, he turned to drugs and alcohol when he lost the part of the bartender on Cheers to Woody Harrelson. And when he was in California looking for work he claimed to be an orphan from Australia, even doing a Down Under accent, for some reason hiding the truth that he grew up in a seemingly normal home in Long Island.
While in Alaska Treadwell is always trying to portray himself as the lone savior of the bears, risking his life for their protection. Yet Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve is a protected land with few reported cases of poaching. It appears Treadwell's idea of himself as the protector of the bears was as much a delusion as that he was an orphan from Australia. He desperately tries to maintain his image even when he's not alone. On a few occasions Treadwell is seen telling Amie Huguenard, who stayed with him the last few summers, to “get out of the shot,” saying he's supposed to be alone. He constantly reminded us on camera how daring it is of him to be alone with the bears. Yet until Treadwell and Huguenard's death, no one had been killed by bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve. He also seems on camera infatuated with his physical appearance; his so called Prince Valiant haircut, and looking fit and athletic despite being in his mid 40's.
So what was Treadwell doing in Alaska? It's clear that he was there more for himself than for the bears, both to gain stardom and to soothe some inner pain. Treadwell admitted that living in Alaska with the bears saved him from alcohol and drug addiction. Perhaps toeing the line with bears, risking his life every day was the vice Treadwell needed as a replacement. But I think he also wanted to give his life some purpose and make something of himself. So he had to create a purpose. He had to create a persona – the protector of the bears.
Herzog says, “I have seen this madness on a movie set before,” speaking of Treadwell as he would one of his actors. Herzog also says, “I have seen human ecstasies and darkest human turmoil.” One is immediately reminded of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (and the subsequent documentary about the film, Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, which shows how obsessive Herzog became making the film) where Klaus Kinski's character becomes obsessed with dragging a gigantic boat across land from one river to another. In fact madness has been the subject of many of Herzog's films. I was also reminded of perhaps Herzog's most famous film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which the main character Aguirre (again played by Klaus Kinski) becomes addicted to his own power and is convinced he is the wrath of god saying, “If I, Aguirre, want the birds to drop dead from the trees...then the birds will drop from the trees... I am the wrath of god. The earth I pass will see me and tremble.” Also in the making of Aguirre Herzog showed his obsessive nature. He insisted on shooting the film on location in the Amazon despite terrible weather conditions.
One might watch Grizzly Man and think Werner Herzog is making a fool of Treadwell, yet I think he actually took a very objective approach. Herzog often comments on the soundtrack of the brilliance of Treadwell as a filmmaker in his ability to capture spontaneous moments of nature, particularly Treadwell's interactions with foxes. Herzog seems to think this is where Treadwell makes a true connection with nature. Here is a point where I may disagree with Herzog. Just because Treadwell can interact with the foxes like anyone would their pet dog or cat, doesn't mean there's any difference between that and the blank stare Herzog saw in the eyes of the bears. I think we just naturally see a connection and project warmth in a cute, cuddly and nonthreatening animal like a fox and cruel indifference in a large, intimidating animal like a grizzly bear.
I don't think Herzog was out to make Treadwell the fool in an attempt to show the madness and cruelty of the world. Treadwell became the mad fool when he was finally eaten. Treadwell couldn't just be the man you may have heard about who lived with bears. He had to prove how daring he was by videotaping himself. Finally he had to up the ante one last time. The summer Treadwell was killed, he stayed in the park longer than normal. With most of the bears in hibernation by this point, Treadwell was living amongst starving and therefore much more dangerous bears. Perhaps Treadwell did have a death wish and staying longer the final summer was a type of suicide. I think in death we got the final verdict on Treadwell's sanity. Yet in death Treadwell finally got what he always really wanted – some notoriety. With Herzog's Grizzly Man he became a star.