Saturday, December 31, 2005

Grizzly Man

There's something a little eerie about watching Grizzly Man. Maybe it's the subject matter—the life and death of Tim Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living among wild grizzly bears in the Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve. Maybe it's the morbid ending, with Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard, eaten alive by a hungry grizzly. Or perhaps it's Treadwell himself—one part nature lover and two parts megalomaniac-or vice versa, depending upon your perspective.

But perhaps most surreal is the heavy use of actual film footage from Treadwell's wilderness tours—making Grizzly Man not only a captivating documentary but also a voyeuristic home movie. As the story progresses one begins to suspect that Treadwell had a death wish and his filming was an effort to create his own legend. He seems to be producing a "Hollywood Insider" feature on an underachiever who captured his vainglory by boldly going where no man has gone before—and no rational man is likely to follow. We gradually realize that Treadwell's self-proclaimed efforts to save these bears is really a near-psychotic masquerade for his self-indulgent desire to create an eco-terrorist rock star persona.

Nevertheless, much of his personal footage is touching and remarkable. There is something ethereal about the loving relationship he develops with the wild foxes who nip at his fingers and follow him playfully through the fields. And seeing Treadwell among the grizzlies is both frightening and fascinating. Without a doubt, he truly loved the bears and sincerely thought of them as kindred spirits. He walks among them as if trying to be accepted—striving mightily to show no fear, chiding them at times, and always drawing dangerously closer. As viewers, we know the tragic end from the movie's beginning, and that's what makes it all so compelling, as we ponder how someone could take this perilous journey to its inevitable destination.

Internationally acclaimed director Werner Herzog is known for bold filmmaking and eccentric subjects. In Grizzly Man, Herzog serves as the narrator and commentator, providing personal views on Treadwell and his environmentalism in his self-assured voice and thick German accent. Eschewing the usual charade of documentary filmmaker as an objective chronicler, Herzog sees the world-views of Treadwell and his associates as often naïve and misguided. He would challenge Whitman's gentle pantheism with Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw." The movie also benefits from terrific music, scored by British folk-rocker Richard Thompson.

The movie drags in parts. Werner interviews a large and often eccentric cast of characters that knew Treadwell, including friends, parents, environmentalists, wilderness experts and even the coroner who handled the bodies. Their reactions to this unique personality range from love and admiration to amusement, pity and resentment. But it is the Grizzly Man himself who provides the clearest, yet the most enigmatic insight, by virtue of his own film. Treadwell coos to the bears. He rants about the National Park Service. And when a drought stifles the salmon run making the bears short on food, he invokes an incongruous prayer on their behalf, demanding rain from a God he insists he does not believe in. And then, sure enough, it pours.

I found Grizzly Man riveting, like when I pick up a National Enquirer and can hardly put it down. So naturally, I'm embarrassed to recommend it. Having said that, I think I'll probably watch it again.


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