Grizzly Man

by J.D. Roth

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.

Updated: 14 February 2006

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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