Hippo Manchester
September 22, 2005

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Grizzly Man (R)
by Amy Diaz

Two massive egos collide in the fascinating documentary Grizzly Man, the story of a guy besotted with nature and a filmmaker besotted with his own storytelling abilities.

Timothy Treadwell is the first obsession-blind fool in this story — he spends 13 summers living among the bears of the Alaskan peninsula protecting them from some evil more phantom than truly threatening. He films his “work,” in part to take his outward bound experience to school children and fellow environmental types and in part because you can take the failed actor out of Hollywood but you can’t take the Hollywood out of a boy with more desire for attention than talent.

The other bewitched soul is Werner Herzog, a documentary (and fiction, but in this case, documentary) filmmaker who narrates the film and interviews Treadwell’s assorted friends and family, other naturalists and wildlife experts in Alaska. The effect is that of a big sweaty fingerprint left in the middle of a picture. Herzog’s insights into Treadwell’s personality vacillate between the obvious (Treadwell went over the deep end turning animal appreciation into a desire to be an animal) and the pompous (anything that starts out talking about Man and Nature quickly turns into something that sounds like a freshman philosophy essay answer). And his particular tendency in interviewing styles seems stagy, making us question the genuineness of the interviewees in a way that is not particularly helpful for the film.

A friend who saw this movie described it to me as being something like a car wreck from which one could not look away. I agree with this, though the car wreck is really more about the on-screen action than the movie itself. Though I personally am not fond of many of Herzog’s choices, they melt away when faced with the story itself. Treadwell, who had a Prince Valiant haircut long past the age when that sort of thing is acceptable, claimed to be from Australia but was in fact from a working-class home back east. After injuring his back and washing out of his college swim team, he moved to California and pursued an acting career, getting no further, really, than acting Australian for his friends. Treadwell himself talks about periods of drinking and being lost until he stumbles onto the bear thing. From then on out, he develops and hones an image as a “kind warrior,” a man who would give of himself to save the wild animals.

Save them from what, exactly? Eh — the movie never really says. The particular animals of Treadwell’s acquaintance live in a federal protected park. The only outsiders we see are a small group of men taking photos of the bears. He hints at trouble with the park service but, whether it’s real or imagined, we never hear any hard evidence of it. Instead we see a man who, as many point out, may be doing the ultimate harm to the animals by getting them comfortable with a human presence (instead of, as would be smart in most cases, motivating them to run from it). The more Treadwell’s cause takes him into the bear world, the more he likes it and seems to want to be one of his ursine friends, not just an observer.

We see some evidence of Treadwell’s human companions, women mostly who share his look of dewy-eyed true-believerism. The woman we learn the least about ultimately is Amie Huguenard, the woman who accompanies him on his last outing in 2003 and is mauled to death during an attack that also kills Treadwell. It’s her death — senseless and wasteful — that prevents even Herzog’s overheated narration from really romanticizing the tale.