A colleague recently gave me a copy of the much discussed (in these circles, I suppose) documentary, Grizzly Man for Christmas. After hearing tales of its mysterious content for nigh on a year now, I am happy to report that I have seen it and, like most, I have a few words to say about it. And if the “Blog-o-sphere” (I shuddered when I typed that) is worth anything, it’s the ability to hold opinions.
For those of you new to the Grizzly Man carnival (not necessarily the “Phenomenon” I have heard it called), the bottom line is this: Timothy Treadwell spends thirteen summers in
I will go ahead and eschew full discussions of whether or not Treadwell “deserved” what he got (I think he both did and didn’t), rhapsodizing about whether his and girlfriend’s being eaten was tragic (it is and isn’t), or how he should have acted (God knows if he had to be there at all). Instead, I want to toss in my two cents briefly on Herzog’s choices as a director.
The structure of the film is itself an accomplishment if only because of the all the places it could have gone but didn’t. Herzog is a capable enough director to know who to talk to in order to get a complex range of responses to the tale. The pilot who hauled out the autopsy containers was pretty clear in his unsympathetic view of the killing. Even his friends in their alignment for Treadwell’s summertime expeditions, though they don’t say it, seem ill-at-ease when discussing it, as if they know what they should say, but are having a hard time making that fit with what actually happened. Not that they should be maligned for their honesty—Herzog is clever enough to test each one’s conviction in the interviews. They stay the course, always on Treadwell’s side. Herzog does a great job of getting the array of views from those involved.
As one colleague’s use of the film in class has shown, the average viewer is more likely than not going to come away from the film thinking that Treadwell is just plain crazy. However, it’s not Herzog that makes you think that. He is clear in many places to show his admiration for Treadwell as a director, pausing several times simply to enjoy the footage. (Some of it is really spectacular.) He also holds his interest in technique, showing Tim pausing between takes to gather his thoughts and re-shoot. However, that Treadwell used the camera as a diary is what makes the story for Herzog, a person looking for themselves in the non-human world.
That is not to say that Treadwell’s story is just a nuts and bolts storytelling effort or clinical analysis. The wall between diary and document is blurred and begs for discussion, conjecture, and argument on the viewer’s part. Even in the refusal (or perhaps because of the refusal) on Herzog’s part to cast judgments on Treadwell, there is still tension. When he disagrees, he says so. The most notable example is the almost dichotomous reaction to Treadwell’s disapproval of things that upset the harmony of the Alaskan wilderness. Treadwell doesn’t take too well to the dead grizzly cub’s arm left to rot, a result of a male grizzly’s paternal controls of female lactation cycles. So too with the dead fox killed (at Treadwell’s uncorrected insistence) by wolves in the night. At this point Herzog openly challenges Treadwell’s world-view, saying that, counter Treadwell, he “believe[s] the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” I can’t imagine that either one is right, though, both too highly polarized in diametric positions; neither seems as easy as they make it.
This is Herzog’s skill as a director made apparent and also his humanity come clean: he never says at any point that Treadwell is unstable, letting Treadwell’s images and words tell the story At the same time, he argues with him—that is, actively engages him—with an opposing ideology. Some might say that ideology is too strong a word here. However, this must be ideologically driven in that it is the result of a belief system. Treadwell’s is a system of implied love, a word he uses to describe his feelings toward the bears almost too many times to count in the film, while Herzog’s is a clinical eye for destruction. That is Herzog’s humanity, his letting his own beliefs slip into his film without any sort of justification. Herzog shows you Treadwell’s position, then tells in his narratorial authority his own. The tension in the film, then, is not about whether Treadwell lives or dies—you get that at the outset of the film—but how Herzog will resolve the seemingly bizarre impulses that Treadwell followed with his own pessimistic view of the world. It’s a great process to watch happen.
Amusingly, I think that this tension presents a new problem that Roger Ebert hinted at in the close of his Chicago Sun-Times review. He ponders a bit about how he feels at the end of the film about a guy who essentially played with bears who then turned on him, noting “a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism.” He closes simply: “He deserves Werner Herzog.” At first this seemed like a bit of a left-handed compliment, even a little grumpy as Ebert’s review dwells a bit on the bleakness Herzog brings to filmmaking (not just this one). However, seen as a result of both collaboration and argument, the comment makes more sense than maybe it’s supposed to (sorry, Rog). Herzog was put in a tough spot for the maker of a documentary, in that he has to craft someone else’s footage, sprinkled with his own, into a manageable tale without actually being able to work with the originator. On top of that, he is stuck with an originator who can at times be adolescent, hyperbolic, inane, saccharine, annoying, and utterly off the deep end, no closer to his own mind than the next guy. That should spell trouble from the beginning.
In a way, then, Grizzly Man ends up highly flawed, no closer to presenting a coherent picture than before, asking a great deal more questions that it answers, its director constantly at odds with the material. If you don’t believe me, just check out extra feature on “The Grizzly Man Sessions” where Herzog tries to direct unfamiliar session musicians to make a soundtrack in just two short days; he seems very polar, between completely pleased and completely frustrated by his lack of control over what would be without him a very organic process. At the same time, the film has in the all the makings of a perfect documentary made by two people with a deep interest in the subjects. For Treadwell, it’s the bears, for Herzog it’s Treadwell. That give and take between the two makes for some great moments and poses a good many questions that deserve careful consideration without Herzog’s being banal or amateur enough simply to ask them.