Runtime: 1 hr 44 min
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Werner Herzog
Starring: Werner Herzog, Carol Dexter, Val Dexter, Sam Egli, Franc G. Fallico
Makes us feel like kids at a Punch and Judy show wanting to shout out "Behind you!"
Review by: ShaneBurridge
Added: 7 years ago
Some background: In 2003, a bear killed and ate two campers in a federal reserve on the Alaskan peninsula. One of the campers, 46-year old Timothy Treadwell, had been visiting the reserve every summer for 13 years; his unfortunate companion on this last trip was a current girlfriend. I'm not sure how director Werner Herzog got involved after this event, but somehow he got wind of the 100 hours of documentary video that Treadwell had recorded over the last five years, and knew after viewing it that he had a subject for a documentary of his own, with most of the footage already provided.
The magnificent Alaskan backdrop and closeups of muscular grizzlies photographed in the wild might be an obvious visual drawcard for anyone seeing (or marketing) this film, but it is Treadwell himself who dominates the story. There are a lot of words one might use to describe this character and I don't doubt that they have all been used in various reviews of GRIZZLY MAN, but if it all came down to one then that word would surely be 'delusional'. Treadwell's video diary provides a good object lesson about what can happen to people who stay in the wilderness too long. Directionless in life, a one-time alcoholic, part-time waiter and full-time self-promoter, he somehow found himself on the peninsula, was struck by the sight of the roaming bears, and became engrossed with them. Cue the delusions. Treadwell appointed himself as a guardian of the bears (although there was nothing they needed protection from, including himself), and went so far as to film himself scurrying through the trees in camouflage gear ("It's a warning," he intones after discovering a smiley face drawn on a rock), convinced that other people didn't understand 'his' bears, which he had long since given names and personalities.
Graduating from simple filmed images of the bears fishing or wandering, Treadwell started creating camera placements for pickup shots and inserts, improvised several different takes of direct-to-camera pieces, and included himself in the frame with the bears to narrate events as they were being recorded. If he ever had a plan for this footage - editing it into a film of his own, perhaps - then it's hard to know who he was pitching it for, as it is at once a diary ("Well, I'm in my tent, and it's raining"), an educational video of sorts (Treadwell made visits to classrooms when he wasn't on the reserve), and a starring vehicle of his own (when in California he had tried to make it as an actor). Any notion of a structured presentation goes out of the window, however, when in the film's most striking scene Treadwell forgets what he's doing and erupts into an expletive-ridden tirade that shows us how far off the rails he has gone. It's here that we see what we may have assumed earlier in the film to be a consciously theatrical manner ("He's a big bear! He's a BIG bear!") is worryingly a fine line away from outright dysfunction.
Herzog, who himself is the subject of a classic documentary of obsession (Les Blank's BURDEN OF DREAMS), is enough of a veteran of both cinema fiction and non-fiction to earn our trust in his objectivity even while he's bluntly disagreeing with Treadwell's romanticizing of the bears or making the same remarks about death and chaos that hearken back to his denunciation of nature in BURDEN. It's easy to walk away from this film without wondering how Treadwell's 100 hours of video might have been assembled by different directors according to their own agendas (for example, his 'Grizzly People' colleague's final cut would have been very different to that of the Park Service). Herzog tells us from the start of the fatal bear attack and then throws open the doors to let us see the world of the grizzlies as Treadwell saw it. The resulting effect of Treadwell's manner and pieces to camera is that of an accident waiting to happen. Seeing the bears lumbering in the background as he reels off his patter with his back turned makes us feel like kids at a Punch and Judy show wanting to shout out "Behind you!" as every paw moves closer. It's hard to tell what value Treadwell's own documentary - if he ever planned to complete one as such - may have had, as his constant on-camera chattering fails to convince us of any credentials he might have as a naturalist. By selling himself as an expert on these particular bears he ironically achieves the reverse effect he may have had by alternatively keeping silent and observing, as he does do at least once, in a scene where two male grizzlies slug it out on a beach in an unbroken take (he brings it down to earth with a thud immediately afterwards, describing the encounter with such annotations as how a bear "went to the bathroom" and did "number two" during the fracas).
However, it's not just all bears. Skirting around the grizzly footage are secondary players who could have provided Treadwell with a whole new angle. Remarkably, during his annual visits to the same campsites, Treadwell earned the trust of a few wild foxes that slept on his tent, ran races with him, cheekily stole his belongings, and trotted alongside him as he did his daily routines. It seems that Treadwell was so bent on communing with the grizzlies that he gave the foxes enough room to form their own bonds by themselves. If he had turned the camera in the other direction he could have gotten not only a different documentary, but also performers who were more accessible, less dangerous, and a lot more engaging. I for one would have liked to see more of the foxes. Obviously foxes would not have garnered Treadwell as much attention, gotten him on TV shows, or supported the image of the maverick risk-taker that he liked to present. But at least he wouldn't have ended up inside of one in the final reel.