There's a peculiar kind of person who enjoys nothing more than to feign fraternity with wild animals. You've seen them on television, stepping gingerly out of the underwater shark cage or sporting a tuxedo of bees, or bopping a hungry crocodile on the snout. Fear does not unbalance the mental see-saw in such people because they over-compensate with a lot of applesauce about needing spiritual detox or the possibility of meaningful communication with beasts of prey.
Bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell was one of those people. An over-the-hill Californian and failed actor, he became a habitué of the feeding grounds of brown bears in Alaska's Kaflia Bay, inside Katmai National Park. By spending inordinate amounts of time in bear world he eventually became a curiosity and even a minor celebrity in human world, appearing on Letterman and other shows as an entertaining bear advocate. Eventually, the day came when the regular air taxi arrived to pick up Treadwell and his girlfriend at their camp and found only pieces of them being guarded by a bear, who had to be shot 11 times before surrendering.
After his death, the hundred hours of (what I think was 35mm) film that Treadwell shot fell into the hands of Teutonic shoe-gobbler and filmmaker Werner Herzog, who used it to fashion a documentary of the first order. Grizzly Man is, in fact, what every documentary aspires to be: a camera pointed at something fascinating. It has none of the obsessive narrative framing of a film like Hoop Dreams or the political scissor-work of a Ken Burns opus. It does have a point of view, though, and it's strikingly in contrast to the point of view of its subject. The film is also largely comprised of footage that is un-recreatable, and that's a rare thing.
It seems cruel, but it's hard to not blame Treadwell for his own death. When I try to call up the names of other documentaries where nature is so blatantly disrespected, I end up back in the days of Nanook. Treadwell convicts himself with most of his own footage, pinging back and forth between insufferable, blubbery lows and insufferable, ecclesiastical highs, letting you know that his judgment is not up to par. He backstrokes through his own schmaltzy melodrama starring himself as a "kind warrior" and the bears as his weak but loyal tribesmen, who require his muscular protection. At one point in the film, he declares in stomped-foot voice, "I would die for these animals, I would die for these animals, I would die for these animals." The audience bites back an easy guffaw.
A lot of dry drunks (which Treadwell was) shift their addiction over to something they consider less damaging, like Haagen-Dazs or Jesus. It's rare to see someone put the bottle down and take up something phenomenally more dangerous than excessive drinking, but that's what Treadwell did. Where did he acquire such a self-destructive streak? It's hard to say, but you can't deny he has one. There's a riotous level of rage behind the man's aging surfer rictus, which he is comically unable to pat down even when giving ridiculous, pee-pee-doo-doo-level names to his bears like "Mr. Chocolate."
At the same time, Treadwell cannot be accused of living only to entertain some solipsistic vision quest, despite alarming information in the film about him apparently peddling bogus identities. He spent much of his time speaking to school-children, wrote about his experiences among the bears and used his too-close proximity to offer valuable insights into the workings of the Katmai habitat. He also spoke candidly about the fear he felt around certain bears and seem to understand the danger on an intellectual level, at least. When the personal story of Treadwell is no longer interesting, his writings and the unsafe behavior he modeled in his footage will still be useful to zoologists, without a doubt. I'd venture to guess it would be of some interest to the anthropologist community as well.
There's a point of controversy in the film to discuss: Treadwell, for some unfathomable reason, turned on his video camera immediately before being attacked. The lens cap remained on, but the audio of his grisly death survived. Herzog films himself listening to the soundtrack of Treadwell's death and then points out the obvious, that it should be destroyed. But it does exist, and the audience isn't in on the action. Are we supposed to pretend like we don't really want to hear it? It may be the right artistic choice, but if I were the director, I think I would have included it. Treadwell is such an hysteric in his affirmations of the benign nature of the bears that it seems like correct karma to throw the proof of their decidedly un-Berenstain nature back at him.
At this point in his career, Werner Herzog knows as well as anyone how to make a compelling documentary: he knows when to let the story roll and when to give a guiding hand. He knows that a moment like the one where a grizzly bear saunters into frame behind Treadwell while he's prattling on to the camera is priceless. Grizzly Man represents a peak in Herzog's considerable powers, and offers a summation of the itchy ambivalence about nature he has been expressing for years. This film is a rumination on our pinched, temporary ceasefire relationship with the rest of the planet, and it ends up reinforcing an idea that Treadwell would hate: that whatever we do to animals is at least fractionally mitigated by the fact that they would not even deliberate before doing the same to us.