“I always cannot understand why girls don’t wanna be with me for a long time,” says Timothy Treadwell, subject of the documentary Grizzly Man. “I have really a nice personality — I’m fun, I’m very very good in the … umm, well, you’re not supposed to say that when you’re a guy, but I know I am, they know I am, and I don’t fight with them, I’m so passive, a bit of a patsy. Is that a turnoff to girls, to be a patsy?”
Depends on the girl, Tim. But let’s analyze some other possibilities. You sound effeminate, you’re scarily hyper sometimes, and — oh yeah — you spend your free time hanging out in the wild with bears. A number of women are intimidated by large animals that kill people. In fact, Treadwell’s last girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, expressed her fear of bears many times. Yet when one eventually did attack, in October 2003, she wouldn’t leave her man behind. She was eaten along with him.
German director Werner Herzog came across a documentary project on Treadwell already in progress and volunteered himself as director; in the process, as he says in voice-over narration, “I discovered a film of human ecstasy and darkest inner turmoils.” Treadwell had filmed many of his expeditions into the Alaskan national parks to be with the bears, and there were more than a hundred hours of footage to be viewed. While it initially seems like standard-issue nature documentary stuff, Herzog plays movie critic with it, and ends up analyzing the work the way a film-school professor might scrutinize Tarkovsky. Herzog, however, is more scintillating to listen to than your average lecturer, not least of all because of his German accent (which is not dissimilar to the Governator’s Austrian version).
In life, Treadwell invoked extreme reactions in people, and he still does in death. Colleagues point to his work in schools showing his nature films to kids, and to his attempts to raise awareness of the plight of bears. Right-wing hate letters read aloud on camera call for all environmentalists of Treadwell’s kind to be eaten by bears; others endorse a plan that would unleash the animals on the students and faculty of Berkeley. A museum curator in Alaska opines, “It’s tragic because, yeah, he died.” Others speculate that by habituating bears to his presence, Treadwell may have done more harm than good, because bears need to be afraid of people for their own safety.
Herzog isn’t one to take an obvious or unambiguous stance on such a man. Instead he analyzes the composition of Treadwell’s shots, the spontaneity or lack thereof, the self-mythologizing at work, and the conflict of director versus star — though they are one and the same. Tales of Treadwell’s past emerge, painting him in an objectively unflattering light: He had problems with the law, was an alcoholic, masqueraded as an Australian orphan to try to get attention, was diagnosed bipolar but refused treatment, and so on. Bears became his surrogate addiction, and he gave up alcohol as a “promise” to them.
If you’ve ever known someone who dotes on cats and anthropomorphizes them to a frightening degree, you’ll recognize some of that in Treadwell; he gives all the wild bears names like “Mr. Chocolate,” “The Grinch,” and “Aunt Melissa.” As Herzog notes, the man seems to be in denial about the fact that bears are predators, cannibals, and occasionally sex fiends in a way that would put humans to shame: Adult males sometimes kill off cubs just so the mother will have to mate again. They’re not even especially pragmatic in their violence: In the middle of a fight between two males, one takes a massive dump, then slips on it while fending off his enemy. (Contrary to popular belief, this particular bear does not shit in the woods.)
Treadwell isn’t the only one whose documentary footage is subject to subtle manipulation. In an interview with the coroner who examined his remains, the man really appears to be acting, with exaggerated facial expressions and grand hand gestures. Herzog eventually just leaves the camera running on him, so we get to see that once his act stops, the guy seems to freeze in position, as if waiting for the director to call “cut” before he’ll break character.
Treadwell is quite a personality, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a Hollywood biopic, possibly with Owen Wilson in the lead. Herzog is primarily interested in Treadwell the filmmaker, but you’ll likely be fascinated with him as a human being.