I see the dangers working with imaginary things all your life, so you better do something solid. I mean by that, for example, traveling by foot, which I have done… I think that is a healthy thing to do, to step out of it, and leave it aside for a while, for certain limited amount of time.
—Werner Herzog, commentary, Burden of Dreams: Criterion Collection
“I will not die at their claws and paws,” Timothy Treadwell announces for his own video camera. “I will be the master, but still, the kind warrior.” Animal activist Treadwell spent some 13 years camping among Alaskan grizzly bears. He loves the bears he made his life’s work, appearing in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man as a figure both committed and charismatic.
Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Willy Fulton, Marnie Gaede, Franc Fallico, Jewel Palovak, Werner Herzog
US theatrical: 12 Aug 2005
About half the imagery in Grizzly Man is Treadwell’s own. For the last five years of his life, he videotaped over 100 hours of “his” bears, as well as his own confessions, complaints, and sometimes ranting commentaries. During periodic returns to civilization, he campaigned for the bears’ protection, visiting classrooms and Letterman, co-founding the foundation Grizzly People and co-writing Among Grizzlies with Jewel Palovak. An earnest, even fanatic crusader, Treadwell met an end he must have imagined even as he rejected it: he and girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by a bear in October 2003.
At the same time that he was working ceaselessly for the bears’ survival, Treadwell was also creating a self, imagining his own life into a shape that he might celebrate. “It’s good work,” he insists, pressing his face close to his own lens, visibly grateful to feel such purpose and connection. “I had no life, now I have a life.” In contemplating that life, Grizzly Man cuts Treadwell’s footage alongside Herzog’s interviews with his subject’s family and friends, as well as bear experts, pilot Willy Fulton (who discovered the bodies and flew investigators to the scene), and even Franc Fallico, the Alaskan medical examiner who has to make sense of the half-eaten bodies.
The resulting range of interpretations provides fewer answers than questions, concerning Treadwell’s own stability and his plainly dangerous efforts to anthropomorphize wild animals. Some comments are crude and reductive (“The bears probably thought there was something wrong with him or he was mentally retarded or something; something clicked in that bear’s head, that he’d be good to eat”) and others suggest that he’s committed a sort of spiritual crime, crossing what Herzog calls “an invisible borderline.” Indeed, one interviewee states outright that Treadwell went too far, and so, “got what he was asking for.”
Still others see Treadwell—alternately robust and fidgety, sentimental and agitated—as a man who lost his way (“He meant well, but to me, he was acting like he dealing with people in bear costumes”). According to Herzog’s narration, Treadwell “stylized himself as Prince Valiant, fighting the bad guys.” (One of Treadwell’s friends suggests that the Prince Valiant haircut was an effort to hide a receding hairline.) These opponents were ambiguous and legion, including poachers, other campers, park authorities, even Treadwell’s own demons. A onetime waiter, failed actor, and recovering alcoholic, he sought a cause, a community in which he could feel comfortable and sympathetically reflected. That he found this haven in wild bears suggests a certain desperation. Feeling frustrated and victimized by human women (“I’m nice to them,” he says while trudging with the camera held just below his reddening face, “I’m a patsy”), he turned to the animals (and also became something of a drama queen). Grizzly Man also intimates the dangers of such enthusiasm, including a scene where Treadwell traipses the banks of a small river, exulting when he locates a particular pile of bear excrement: “Look,” he rejoices, “This is Wendy’s poop. It was just inside of her.”
In the bears, the film proposes, Treadwell found companionship and refuge, a way to escape or maybe remake himself. To achieve this end, he rejected his unhappy past, spent more and more time in the parks and precious little time with his friends or parents (whose interviews with Herzog are gently nostalgic but a little vacant too). In making this new self, Herzog notes that Treadwell’s technique was “methodical,” taping over scenes he saw as “mistakes,” perfecting the image he wanted to present, whether to himself or some future audience is not clear. Herzog describes as well the accidental “beauty” of some scenes, as Treadwell himself disappears from the frame and wind rustles tree branches, creating a haunting poetry.
Aside from his appreciation of Treadwell’s seemingly intuitive perfectionism, Herzog doesn’t hide his impatience with “kind warrior” pose. Never one to hold back, Herzog argues with Treadwell throughout the film, disparaging his efforts to humanize the bears. As two bears fight one another in the background, Treadwell offers a play-by-play, then mourns and romanticizes the violence; Herzog is more skeptical, calling the bears beasts whose actions are determined by instincts, not emotional or moral purpose; even as Treadwell declares his “love,” Herzog notes dryly that males kill their own cubs in order to be able to “fornicate” with lactating females. “It is a simpler world,” Herzog remarks of Treadwell’s seeming sanctuary, “but it is a harsh, brutal world. We can’t live in that world because we’re very different from them.”
Herzog is hardly alone in this view, even among Treadwell’s supporters: “He wanted to bond as children of the universe or something,” says one. “He had lost sight of what was really going on.” One possible key to what was “really going on” in Treadwell’s delusion was Amie, whom Herzog describes as “the great mystery” in Grizzly Man, visible for mere seconds. Reportedly afraid of the bears and unhappy with her two years of camping with Treadwell, she was scheduled to leave at the time of her death. And yet, it was she who must have shot endless hours of Treadwell’s self-invention, and also thought to turn on the camera when she heard a commotion outside their tent on that last morning.
Though the lens cap was never removed, the camera recorded the last six minutes of their struggles to live. This fact is only slightly less disturbing than the scene where Herzog is listening to that tape. He stands with headphones on, his back to the camera that focuses on Palovak’s frightened face: she watches him, you hear nothing, and then he tells her to destroy the tape, so it she will never be tempted to listen to it. In a film focused on reading absences, on making sense of what can only be guessed at (motives, aspirations, fears), this moment—a kind of hyper-framed, multiply mediated absence—is stunning, both deep and terrible.