Grizzly Man (2005)
Rated R and probably that might be on the nose. Okay, the big reveal in the first ten minutes is that the subject of this movie and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear. It's something that runs throughout the film. That idea is pretty gruesome enough. It is very respectful of the actual event, which is caught on audio but not revealed. But Timothy Treadwell, who seems to be this weird, out-of-touch dude who seems really innocent, will just let loose with a stream of expletives. That's pretty deserving of the R-Rating.
DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog
Hi, I'm Tim. I'm the last person to watch this documentary that people were obsessed with almost fifteen years ago. I don't know why I waited. I left my Werner Herzog days a while ago. You would think that I would have watched it then. This would have been my lynch pin. Forget Fitzcarraldo. I would have constantly referred to Grizzly Man as the Werner Herzog movie to get them into the insane mind of Werner Herzog. That being said, I actually am pretty excited to write about this. There's some stuff that is going to make me look like a bad person here. But with that in mind, I think I have to say it.
Herzog is kind of a genius and I don't think I understood that until I saw this movie. Herzog has to know what he has on his hands here. It is staring him in the face with this movie. Grizzly Man might be the most polarizing film that I've seen. For a story about a guy who got eaten by a grizzly bear, he made this oddly political without really going overtly political. This...this is Harambe before Harambe. It's so bizarre. Herzog even gives his opinion on the events of this movie. Vocally, he's wildly sympathetic to the philosophy and life of Timothy Treadwell. But his visuals and his narrative might not necessarily match this. On first glance, watching an ecologist getting eaten by a bear evokes the same sympathy pains that Steve Irwin brought about. Steve Irwin devoted his life to ecology and zoology (I think I'm using the proper term). He loved animals unironically. He didn't care how dorky he came across and his death was a proper tragedy. I think that Steve Irwin used his celebrity not for himself, but to raise awareness for animals. But then we have the tale of Timothy Treadwell. Timothy Treadwell, from moment one, reads as a really weird dude. For those who are unaware of Treadwell's story, he was a self-proclaimed ecologist who lived with grizzly bears in a protected park for the bears. He would film himself living with these bears in the hope that he could cut together a movie from that footage. He did this for years. Finding out that he was mauled and eaten by a bear, with that knowledge alone, would evoke a bit of sympathy. Okay, yeah, I laughed when I heard in 2005. I was a broken person back then who guarded his heart. After all, it seems obvious that, if you live with bears, you will be eaten. I mean, people don't really yell at Jane Goodall for her experience with the monkeys. But the movie, over the course of about an hour and forty-four minutes, implies that Timothy Treadwell was the worst person to be an advocate for these bears. If I have ever seen a movie that has shown both sides of an issue thoroughly, it is Grizzly Man. Herzog verbally says that what Timothy Treadwell did was beyond belief. From a filmmaker's position, he shot some of the absolute best footage that has ever existed of these bears. It is all rudimentary. It is all shot on camcorder. Sometimes, the movie comes across a little like The Blair Witch Project. But because he was encamped with these animals, he caught moment in nature that no documentarian would get on a regular basis. He had so much footage that he could pull out some really gorgeous stuff.
But through interviews with others who actually have educational training, Treadwell wasn't good for the bears. As much as his message was one of taking care of bears, Timothy Treadwell ignored all sound logic and science for what ended up being about making himself famous. There are interviews that showed that by living with the bears and playing with the bears, he was making the bears unafraid of humans. That natural fear is what was protecting them. They brought this information to him and it would make him fly into a rage. Also, the mythos that bears are huggable is actually a dangerous precedent to set. We should continue to think that bears are dangerous. This is an odd point in Treadwell's philosophy. Treadwell, and I'm really jumping to the point on this one, was obsessed with his own celebrity. He wanted to show that he was the most impressive ecologist out there. He kept referring to himself as a samurai and that he was a unique individual. He wanted to show people that he was the master of living with grizzly bears and that he was the only one capable of earning their respect. There's this interview with his parents where his parents inform Herzog that Treadwell was second-in-line to play Woody Harrelson's part on Cheers. That never happened. His interviews are just so delusional that it is almost hard to process what he believes is reality and what is fiction. What we see, through the course of this movie, is that the only reason that he survived as long as he did, was through luck. There's this eye-opening movie where two grizzly bears get into a violent, violent fight and Treadwell just admires what happens. But he never puts together that if bears treat each other like that, what will happen to him? The movie gets to be absolutely haunting because of this. He is constantly speaking of the fact that he will probably die out here, but his voice doesn't really match what he's saying. He has a key misunderstanding of what death actually entails and it is very scary.
Treadwell was this guy who would lie to himself about believing things. There's this odd conversation he has with the camera where he defends his heterosexuality. But it is this conversation that is completely unsolicited. He uses masculine wording to compensate for his fairly effeminate nature. It's really odd, because he keeps using these toxically masculine terms to show how much he is attracted to women. He almost seems hateful of women at the time for not understanding how good of a lover he could be. Herzog cuts in many of his former flames to confirm that he was obsessed with seducing women. This all has to be taken into account that his current girlfriend was also eaten by the same bear while she was out there with them. The entire Amie story is almost more fascinating. Amie's family did not agree to appear in the movie, which is somehow really appropriate for what her entire story is. She was brought along on this journey. The journey started with her as Treadwell's girlfriend, but she's practically in no footage. Treadwell, in his obsession with telling his story as the lone protector of the grizzly bear, ignores her altogether. Part of his story is about isolation, but he has his girlfriend with him the entire time. From my perspective, Treadwell comes across as a braggart. He's obsessed with his own success and his own mission. In the hundreds of hours of footage, there's barely that acknowledges that Amie exists. She wanted to dump him. I don't blame her. She was increasingly upset with Treadwell and wanted to leave, but she stayed because there was a timetable. The appropriate element is that her parents have surgically removed her from the events that happened in the Grizzly Maze. The few shots of her in the movie show her looking terrified. Unfortunately, that only lives up with Treadwell's explanation of what would happen if someone was scared. But as much as Treadwell wanted to care for these animals, he's also treating them like something that they were not. He wanted grizzly bears to be the sanitized versions of grizzly bears. It's so appropriate that one of Treadwell's favorite objects was a stuffed teddy bear. He wanted them all to be like that.
But my reaction to this whole thing is almost part of the narrative that Herzog is going for. There's an interview pretty early on in the movie and it makes the trailer as well, from someone who straight up condemns Treadwell. He says that "he got what he deserved" or something like that. Do I instantly jump on board the victim blaming? Part of the element of watching gruesome documentaries is that we feel the need to blame someone. We enjoy hating and disparaging stupid behavior. I mean, I could say the same thing about Abducted in Plain Sight. We need to have someone to blame. We need that scapegoat. In the case of Treadwell, it is pretty evident who is to blame. But from a lot of people's perspectives in the movie, Treadwell wasn't a man who wanted stardom. A lot of people really called him friend. I know that's really weird that I should be taken aback by that, mainly because listening to him talk was grating for a lot of the film, but people really loved him. There is testimony after testimony telling how good of a guy he was. Honestly, I think that Treadwell probably thought that he was more than a stand up guy. This might have been the most altruistic thing that anyone could do from his perspective. Sure, he bought into his own hype, but that might just be honesty that a lot of us feel uncomfortable about feeling. Again, Herzog seems to have quite a bit of admiration for him. There are people who didn't know him that see him as a great man. The odd advocate for Treadwell was his coroner, who saw him as doing somewhat noble actions, even in his final moments. Yeah, that coroner is really dramatic. But he also makes a point. There are real moments of goodness in this movie. He is trying to do the right thing. I know that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but I don't think that applies to Treadwell. Treadwell is a study in the complex morality of ecology. We have been taught to stand up for the weak and helpless. By that logic, Treadwell is saintlike. But he is also completely fallible. He takes shortcuts. He wants fame. He is slightly delusional. There are times that I laughed at Treadwell. Naming a bear Mr. Chocolate doesn't help me take him seriously. But then I also see that his death was a tragedy. The movie, with its avoidance of the audio file, does something kind of dangerous. I can't sell myself as a good person. Herzog tells about this audio file and teases it. But he doesn't play it. He does so as a means to show respect to Treadwell and Amie. But it's a Chekhov's gun that doesn't go off. It is teased. Yeah, I Googled it and hated myself afterwards. Can Herzog be blamed? These were the halcyon days of 2005. The footage was private back then. But you know that the footage was going to become something special and coveted in that moment. It's such a complex web.
I can't believe I didn't see this movie earlier. It's so insane that I kind of want to watch it again with the wife. It scratches this itch that I'm never quite proud of, but I'm glad that I know about now. It's a tragedy and a morality play. I don't think Herzog has made a smarter film.
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