Grizzly Man

14 February 2006 · 7 comments

We haven’t seen any Best Picture nominees recently, but we did get a chance to netflix Grizzly Man, a highly-regarded documentary from last year.

Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a ne’er-do-well, a drug addict, and notorious liar, who, after his acting career failed, began to spend his summers in Alaska, camping in Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula: the very heart of grizzly territory. Beginning in 1991, Treadwell lived in the bush with the bears, the foxes, the birds, and the bugs. He named the animals around him. He learned their personalities. He spoke with them. In 2003, because of an argument with an airline ticket agent, Treadwell and his girlfriend stayed two weeks longer than normal. All of the bears they knew had already migrated toward their hibernation locations, and strange, new bears had taken their place. Strange, new, hungry, aggressive bears. Strange, new, hungry, aggressive bears that killed and ate Treadwell and his girlfriend.

During his last five years in Alaska, Treadwell used a couple of video cameras to film himself interacting with the animals and the world around him. His intention was to produce some sort of extended work about the grizzlies. One hundred hours of footage survived, and it is from this raw material that the bulk of the film is drawn. We see what Treadwell saw. We hear what he has to say about it.

Much of the footage used in Grizzly Man is gorgeous. Treadwell had a fine eye, and he had beautiful scenery at his disposal. He was unafraid to use wide angles, and this allowed him to capture the grand scale of the land around him. His footage of the animals — the bears and the foxes — is also great stuff, and I cannot help but admire his work.

Was Timothy Treadwell a hero or was he a fool? Was he an idealist or was he an idiot? Did his “work” promote the health and safety of the bears or did it endanger them? This film asks — but does not answer — these questions.

Many people, including the film’s director, Werner Herzog, are critical of Treadwell’s actions, and of his anthropomorphized view of the natural world. I cannot help buy sympathize with the man. I respect him. The classical view of nature says that the world of the animals is a wild kingdom, and that the world of man is wholly separate from it. I am not convinced this is true. It may be that each species operates according to unique principles, with specific evolutionary motivations for behavior, but I believe that it’s possible for species to overcome these mental structures and learn to communicate, even to co-habitate. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky environmentalist “love-the-earth” New Age bullshit; I sincerely believe that, given time, humans will learn to communicate more effectively with animals. I believe that animals are, in general, far more intelligent than most people credit, and that individual creatures are capable of rich emotional lives.

But that’s not really what the film is about. Grizzly Man is about Treadwell, about his deep, conflicted soul, and about the solace he finds among the bears. It’s not clear what Treadwell does when he’s not living with the bears. Part of his time is spent doing educational presentations for grade school children, but what does he do with the rest of his time? Interviews with friends and family make it obvious that he didn’t have a lot of money. Was he employed at all? He helped found and run Grizzly People, “a grassroots organization devoted to preserving bears and their wilderness habitat”, but was that all?

A final note: I love the song used to close the film, “Coyotes” by Don Edwards. If you know of any other songs like this (“Cold Missouri Waters” by Cry Cry Cry is an example), please share them with me. These are country/folk story songs with sparse instrumentation, songs that are all about the voice of the singer and about the story he (or she) is singing.

1 alan February 14, 2006 at 13:36

I loved this film too and though I thought Treadwell was crazy, I could relate to him in many ways. I wonder how Herzog got the rights — did he buy them from the girlfriend or the family? And also, like you, I wonder how Treadwell got $$$ — it sure didn’t look like his family had much. It can’t be cheap to travel to/from Alaska like that. Did it bug you when Herzog told the ex to destroy the audio of the mauling? I thought that was really irresponsible.

2 jenefer February 14, 2006 at 14:00

You didn’t say if you liked the film, or if it was frightening. What did you think beyond loving the closing song? What did Kris think? Is this something you would watch again?

3 J.D. February 14, 2006 at 14:07

Huh. You’re right, Jenefer.

Yes, I liked the film. I liked it a lot. It was very compelling, very intense. I’m glad they didn’t share the audio of those last six minutes of Treadwell’s life, though.

Did I mention this? No, I don’t think I did. In the final, fatal grizzly attack, either Treadwell or his girlfriend turned on the camera but did not remove the lens cap. There are six minutes of audio capturing the end of their lives. In the film, the director listens to the audio in the company of the woman who possesses the tape. Eventually he cannot bear it any longer. He stops the tape and advises the woman to destroy it. Thus Alan’s question, my reponse to which is: It did bug me that Herzog told the woman to destroy the tape. Freeze it in a block of ice. Lock it in a safe-deposit box. Bury it in the yard. Make it difficult to access, but don’t destroy it!

Though I don’t think the film was overtly scary, it’s certainly the sort of the thing that sticks with you. It haunts you. It haunted Kris so much that she was kept awake by nightmares after she watched it. Seriously. I haven’t had nightmares, but I’ve thought about it a lot…

4 Joel February 14, 2006 at 15:28

More importantly, if Treadwell had been befriending Alaskan quayle instead of grizzly bears, and had his girlfriend been Vice President Dick Cheney, do you think he would have been any safer?

5 tammy February 14, 2006 at 21:44

We watched that movie on New Years Eve. It’s a compelling story and I too was upset at the advice to destroy the tape. And that last song you mentioned? Greg sat and listened to that song for about an hour after ward..remote in hand… just clicking on it over and over. I have NEVER seen him so moved by a song! However, he could not relate to Treadwell at all. I, on the other hand, could see myself crossing the line between sanity and isanity, which is what Treadwell did in many ways. And if one disagrees that he was totally isane I think one would have to agree that even if he didnt cross the line he definitely blurred it!

Amazing film. I’d watch it again in a heart beat!

6 Blogeois February 14, 2006 at 21:57

I watched Grizzly Man about a week ago and I am still haunted by it. It probably didn’t help that I saw aftermath photos then posted on the Internet back when Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed and mostly eaten. Horrible horrible photos even for those who aren’t usually phased by gore. I thought Treadwell sounded a bit crazy but only because he had grown so fond of animals and so disgusted with humans and that I could certainly relate to and respect. Overall, I thought the movie was sad and hope that it peaks enough interest in Grizzlies in Alaska and the Grizzly People website to learn more about protecting whats left.

7 Mr. Viddy February 14, 2006 at 23:17

Grizzly Man was a great documentary and it was shocking what became of him.

Previous post:

Next post: