Director: Werner Herzog
By Marilyn Ferdinand
A spate of films centering on wildlife came out in 2005, testifying to the perennial fascination the natural world holds for human beings. Feeling not really a part of nature, though we are its creatures, we seek out a connection to a life silent of electronic bleating and devoid of the artificial light of screens and lamps and flashing signs. The moon and the stars become not only escapes, but also seducers, and wild animals are more than beautiful, they are our friends and exemplars of our true spirit.
March of the Penguins won a large audience as it took strange and beautiful creatures that pose no threat to human beings and reflected through them the love and struggle we feel in our own lives. We identified with them, rooted for them, suffered their losses with them, and rejoiced in their perseverance. They gave us comfort that, as a group, we could survive even the harshest turns of fate and continue on in our cycle of life.
Duma partially domesticated a cheetah, but showed that this potentially lethal animal and a human being, in this case, a South African boy named Xan (Alexander Michaletos), could become true friends. The goodness of Xan toward Duma, whose life Xan saved several times, seemed to create a magic that could ward off all manner of injury from other creatures, both wild and human. It gave us hope that if only we had the right attitude, we, too, could revert to our true nature and live happily in a natural state. It is, perhaps, this magic thinking that sent Timothy Treadwell, the central figure in Grizzly Man, into the wilds of Alaska to commune with grizzly bears and, finally to be killed by one.
A boozer and drug abuser from the suburbs of New York, this baby boomer with California good looks, failed acting ambitions, and a dysfunctional relationship with civilization started summering in 1980 in a remote area of Alaska frequented by grizzlies. He established himself among a familiar group of bears, all of whom he named, had a wild red fox adopt him as a companion, and went deep into his loneliness to reach a place almost completely at odds with humanity. In 1998, he began filming his “expeditions.” He used these films to educate school children, at no charge, about grizzlies and the dangers they faced from human encroachment. He also used them as a video diary and practice footage for what appeared to be a “Crocodile Hunter” type movie he was planning. The footage provided the raw material for Herzog, a man drawn to extremes in nature, to fashion a documentary portrait of Treadwell.
Treadwell was not truly an environmentalist. Several people Herzog interviewed emphasized that these grizzlies were not in any danger. The population size was healthy even with limited hunting, and that poaching was extremely rare. A Native American said that a respectful boundary had existed between his people and the bears for thousands of years and that he considered Treadwell to be something close to a blasphemer who was acclimatizing these grizzlies to human contact, ironically, putting them in danger. Nonetheless, Treadwell saw himself as a savior, a special individual who had found the door to total communion with nature that so many had tried, but failed to open. He emphasized in his filming many times that what he was doing was extremely dangerous. So it was, but the warning seems more in the style of “don’t try this at home, kids,” than a true appreciation of the danger he was in. It almost seems as though his uniqueness was being flaunted with these warnings. Perhaps he had a messiah complex. Perhaps he simply had a death wish. Perhaps he was more complicated than this film made him out to be.
Herzog is attracted to the grotesque. He focuses on the demons Treadwell occasionally exorcized on film, and on his sometimes nutty closeness to the bears—for example, lovingly touching some scat that had just come out of one of his favorite bears. On the videos, however, Treadwell clearly states that he has studied the bears, and he kept a meticulous diary. While he was not a trained scientist, it is possible that he discovered quite a lot in those 13 years that might be beneficial to science and to protecting the habitat bears need to survive long term. Complicating his portrait by suggesting that Treadwell was some kind of self-styled Jane Goodall, however, does not fit into Herzog’s desire to portray nature as the enemy and Treadwell as Icarus. I was haunted by thoughts of Treadwell after seeing Grizzly Man and longed to really know what made him tick. Sadly, this film was all about what made him stop ticking.