Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Few Thoughts On Some Grizzly Men

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 Alaska with Grizzlies. On the eve of his disembarking the National Park that was his home, happenstance brings him back to the park after attempting to leave and he and girlfriend are eaten by a bear. Many strange characters fit into the mix, but this is basically the “story” that famed documentarian Werner Herzog goes about telling in shaping some 100 hours of Treadwell’s footage from the final few summers.

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.


Planet Killer said...

When Herzog drops his "the world is hostile" bit the doc really opened up for me in ways it hadn't earlier in the piece. With Herzog's declaration the doc became as much about Herzog to me as it was about Treadwell. You can tell Herzog is uneasy about Treadwell - but it's as much an unease about Treadwell's optimism as it is about Treadwell's decision on how to spend his summer, I think. I think Herzog has too much admiration for that optimism to simply say Treadwell was nuts and yet he doesn't protect Treadwell, either.

Moving on a different path ...

Questions about Treadwell's "deserving" death are fascinating, too, because I don't think it's the right question to be asked and yet it is the question that is always asked. I think when we ask that question we're doing the same thing we do when we look about 1000 years and cast aspersions based on our own morals, ethics, cultural norms, etc. To the bear that consumes Treadwell and Amy there is no deserve - there is, at the root of the cause, possible hunger, possible anger, possible dementia, etc., but there is no deserve. I don't think the bear has a sense of justice or moral outrage at Treadwell's presence.

From our standpoint, too, to say that they "deserved" to die, to me, implies a crime higher than they were guilty of. I also cringe when I hear "deserve" because Treadwell knew the risk he was taking and was willing to take it for 13 summers. Just because someone puts themselves in a life-threatening situation doesn't mean they deserve death - certainly cops and firemen don't deserve to die even though they know that's a risk of the job. No, when people say Treadwell "deserved" to die I think what they mean is, "He's nuts," and "I'd never do that and his death confirms why I'd never do that."

Ebert's assertion that the bears turned on Treadwell is, I think, misplaced, too, because the bear that consumes Treadwell is, if I'm remembering correctly, a bear from deeper inland that Treadwell didn't have a lot of contact with in previous years. Of course, the idea that the bears "turned" on Treadwell implies that for 12 summers they were in favor of him being there, or in favor of his mission, and now they had decided it had to stop.

To get back to Herzog, it would be interesting to hear Treadwell's reply to the doc. On the one hand, Treadwell clearly had aspirations to either be a star himself or get his footage out to a wide audience, which the film accomplished. On the other hand, I think Treadwell would run kicking and screaming from Herzog's cold, clinical take on the world.

Tommbert said...

I definitely agree with your assertion about Treadwell's potential response to the doc. It also confirms some of my intuitions about the film implied in the discussion about Treadwell and Herzog's opposing viewpoints.

Taken in a certain light, the issue is one of ethos (Herzog) versus pathos (Treadwell). Herzog as chronicler requires a certain kind of detachment, but those things we both bring up belie his investment in the ideological aspects of the film. At the same time, for all the judgment he puts into the film (as with his take on the orientation of thw world), it's odd to me that he never really addresses that central question of whether Treadwell was doing the right thing. Not that he was or was not "crazy", but rather that his method worked. That seems like the kind of discussion Herzog is actually in a great position to take up as he is the investigator to the Treadwell story. Based on what's there in the doc, he talks to more than just the immediately interested (rescuers, the coroner, etc.) but seeks out people who could flesh out Treadwell as person (like his parents, close friends, and so on). If anyone could make the kind of judgment about Treadwell's motives, Herzog as the outsider coming into his story would be, in my estimation, the one who could do it credibly. However, I would say (and I think Herzog might agree) that even so, those types of judgments would still be incorrect as it overstates the case, putting too much structure to a plainly fuzzy situation.

At the same time, it's not as if Treadwell is all pathos. In the same way as Herzog gets a little emotionally invested, Treadwell is ptetty well in control of his situation--he has a pretty keen mind that I think gets overlooked by all the "he's nuts" talk. Most telling is the curse filled rant in which Herzog leaves out the ad hominem attacks on certain park rangers. In the screaming, Treadwell argues fairly persuasively the mismanagement of the park system, one where he is the object of suspicion and not the people who he films actually harming bears by throwing rocks at them. Treadwell's anger overshadows the logic of argument, but the center is there: he and the park service are supposed to have the same goal, the protection of the park. However, he sees that in the park's labeling him a threat, they have screwed things up righteously. In none of the footage shwon in the film does Treadwell identify himself as a threat anywhere near as menacing as the tourists. All Treadwell messes with are the bureaucratic regulations of the government, and as such, he's a threat. Seems like he's got it right.

This kind of duality in both makes the film really great. Of course it also begs those questions. More to say, more to say. Just don't want to beat a dead bear anymore. Sigh...