on 16 July 2010
Please note that this is not a wildlife documentary! The documentary is really about Timothy Treadwell, it uses parts of Timothy's own amazing footage to track his deteriorating mental state leading up to his death. Treadwell was a lover of Grizzly bears and dedicated his life to 'protecting' them, trying to understand and become one of them. Werner Herzog paints a portrait of an extraordinary man who has retreated from human society and found peace in the animal world- for 13 summers he lives closely with the Grizzly bears, and when I say 'close' I mean CLOSE! Some of the footage is awe-inspiring and Treadwell manages to capture many staggering images of these incredible animals. What is really intriguing however is Treadwell himself- we come to realise that he had many problems in his own life, he was unable to cope with human society, his life and his emotional problems; this his has led to his extreme obsession with Bears and living amongst animals. He is like the Michael Jackson of the animal world, frolicking around speaking to the animals, personalising them and making friends with many beautiful creatures- there is a peculiar innocence about his attitude but it is inevitable that is naivety and delusion would lead to serious danger.
Over time, he believed he was trusted by the bears, who would allow him to approach them, and sometimes even touch them. Treadwell was repeatedly warned by park officials that his interaction with the bears was unsafe to both him and to the bears. "At best, he's misguided," Deb Liggett, superintendent at Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, told the Anchorage Daily News in 2001. "At worst, he's dangerous. If Timothy models unsafe behavior, that ultimately puts bears and other visitors at risk." Treadwell filmed his exploits, and used the films to raise public awareness of the problems faced by bears in North America. In 2003, at the end of his 13th visit, he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked, killed, and partially eaten by a bear; the events which led to the attack are unknown.
As Grizzly Bear works towards its conclusion it becomes increasingly disturbing- Timothy's seems to descend more and more into insanity and reckless abandon, he seems ready to die and unfortunately in the end he got what he was asking for, such a shame he took his girlfriend with him. Descriptions of the aftermath made feel pretty queasy... This is an unusual documentary- you could easily convince someone it is a black comedy fiction because some of the people in it are truly bizzare characters; Timothy's friends and some people Herzog gets to speak are rather strange (especially the coroner). To conclude; this is a story about a disturbed man who descends into insanity, a Michael Jackson like character but his affinity is with Bears not children. In the end he was deluded but he lived an incredible life and had an unbelievable connection with animals- he made some friends out there, we see him walk with bears who follow him as companions and he befriends foxes, it is really worth watching; surreal and fascinating.
Shortly after watching this movie for the third time I watched online segments from Animal Planet called fatal attraction telling the stories of 10 people who had a fatal attraction for dangerous creatures.
Often it's a moment of carelessness that results in death. People killed by bites from pet bushmasters or mambas or cobras or attcked by Chimpanzees. They trip or fall or are momentarily distracted. Some survivors test their reaction by refusing to take antivenom to see if they have developed immunity to snakebite.
Sometimes these people are thrillseekers, and sometimes there is an arrogance in thinking they are somehow invulnerable to the obvious outcome or there may even be a lofty vanity about thinking they are somehow protecting dangerous threatened creatures from bad people. I mention this because of the parallels with this movie.
I notice when I discuss this movie with people I get a varied response because it's open to many interpretations.
I remember discussing it with one woman who said she found that guy so annoying that she could hardly wait for the bear to eat him. Most interpetations are somewhat more sympathetic than this.
Self appointed conservationist Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers in the Alaskan wilderness among the grizzly bears until finally he and his girlfriend were attacked in their camp and killed and eaten by a bear.
During his thirteen summers he recorded over 100 hours hours of video footage then passed along to director Werner Herzog to turn into a documentary.
If you're like me as you begin to watch the movie you will be amazed by these specacular grizzlies and the wilderness they inhabit and you may also start to wonder about the sanity of Treadwell. You will also be in awe of some of the footage especially with the foxes. I have never personally faced a bear but when I see a bear appoach Treadwell I start to feel nervous about what will happen.
So you can feel that danger at the very beginning.
Treadwell though is quite a memorable character even if he is deluded about these bears which lets face it are aggressive instinctual creatures.
There are a series of memorable characters who make brief appearances and share their insights.
One is a helicopter pilot who has a very unsympathetic attitude towards Treadwell though he has sympathy for the girl Amy whose death was an unnecessary and unfortunate tragedy. Sometimes people who work in Coroners office or who deal with death can have necrophiliac tendencies. They find death can be erotic.
So the coroner in this case seems a little excited by the lurid tale of examining the bodies, and his account of the audio of their last minutes.
You may discover great irony within this movie as Treadwell films a bear called Olie who may very well be the bear that ate him and describes how he had a confrontation with this bear. 'Is Tim Treadwell going down Olie's gullet?' He actually says that.
I loved for example Treadwell's rant against the park rangers which you can watch on youtube. I particularly loved his interaction and friendship with the beautiful foxes.
I think it's clear that Treadwell did have some skill in surviving so long with the bears. Unfortunately with creatures like this who sometimes even eat their own young it's impossible to forge a human animal bond, the type he did forge with the foxes.
Treadwell claimed to be protecting bears. But from what? Maybe there is poaching, but the population is also culled annually by 6% according to a park ranger. So what difference did Treadwell make? His life may not have made much difference to the life of the grizzly bear but his death certainly has made a difference to our awareness.
It's a tragedy that ideally would not happen and was perfectly foreseeable, yet it has yielded what I consider to be a remarkable movie which I have recommended to numerous people. I think you most people will love it and I hope this was helpful.
on 6 January 2007
I've just watched Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man. It's about Timothy Treadwell, an American who retreats to the wilds of Alaska each summer to live with and protect the grizzly bears. Treadwell thought that he could live as a bear, and he was vitriolic about humans and civilisation. It seems to me that he was so emotionally attached to the animals that he didn't have any rationality left when it came to being aware of the risk to himself. He often talked about understanding how the bears behaved, and that if other people had come to Alaska, those people would have been killed.
He normally only stayed there during the summer, but one time when trying to travel back home, he was refused entry onto the plane, so he returned to the wilds again, this time even more hateful of people. Most of the bears he'd come to know had gone into hibernation, and as storms began to build on the coast, starving, more aggressive bears from further inland appeared in search of food, and in the end Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by one of them.
The film is made up of Treadwell's videos of himself, and his commentaries. Herzog also interviews friends and family, and there's one strong moment where Herzog listens to the recording of Treadwell at the moment of his death, and it's very powerful, more so that the viewer doesn't get to hear it, instead we have to imagine it from descriptions of the recording. At times when watching the footage, you feel that Treadwell is creating a fiction rather than recording fact - he records many takes of himself talking to camera as he tries to perfect it, and he often talks about himself being alone, however on a few occasions he'd been accompanied but he creates a persona of himself as a lone protector of the animals. He also talks about the bears protecting him; from other people but also I think from himself. His history had been self-destructive and he'd had a few knock-backs in life, that he must have felt that by being such on edge with the bears he couldn't afford to let his guard down.
I often wondered who Treadwell was recording the videos for - did he intend them to be seen by a mass audience or were they for himself? I get the feeling that he was aware of his potential fate living in such dangerous proximity to these animals, and that he was shooting the videos to be a reminder of his life.
First off this is not a documentary about bears; neither is it a natural history of Alaska or anything much related to this. There are bears in it as well as foxes but it is the examination of a disturbed individual who documented much of his experiences living in close proximity to bears. The documentary is about Timothy Treadwell, an unremarkable person in many ways who attempted to stand out in life by putting himself in a uniquely precarious position.
I very much suspect from the footage shown that Treadwell was bi-polar or something akin to that. He was very grandiose in the way he talked about himdelf and what he felt he had achieved. He also presented as unstable in mood, going into long-winded rants and rages. He obviously felt very disaffected with his life outside of being the self proclaimed bear saviour and that was the big shame for me that Herzog didn't provide us with more of an understanding of what Treadwell actually did outside of the 13 summers he spent in bear territory.
A lot of the footage shown and filmed solely by Treadwell makes Treadwell appear as if he had a death wish though he clearly believes he is able to manage situations with bears and it is on film to see that they often approach within reaching distance without any disasterous consequences so he was either unbelieveably fortunate or he knew that certain bears learned to tolerate and ignore his presence. Herzog provides his usual measured and thoughtful commentary over the film and also speaks to friends of Treadwell's as well as others who were not as agreeable with what he was doing.
Treadwell's demise is mentioned early on so there is no false dramatic conclusion. The circumstances leading up to it are quite interesting. It seems that upon leaving the National Park he had a row with airline personnel whereby he plumbed to go back to the bears instead of 'civilisation' It struck me that he must have been ill prepared to make this last second decision, lack of provisions etc which strikes me as being reckless in the extreme. He went back to the bears later in the season than he would normally be when it seems the existing bears would be going into hibernation and unfamiliar 'wilder' bears would be entering the territory searching for food. One sad aspect is that a young woman went with him for reasons which are difficult to comprehend given the unpredictability of Treadwell as well as her apparent well documented fear of bears. It all ended terribly for them and one of the most dramatic sections of the film is when Herzog listens to the last moments of their lives on tape. The lens cap was on the camera but the audio was on. Herzog is quickly very affected by what he hears and asks the woman who has the tape, a friend of Treadwells, to turn it off. He then advises her that she must never listen to it and urges her to destroy it. I think it's a very good thing that the tape didn't constitute any part of the programme. From the descriptions from coroners, Park staff etc we know what happened and the gruesome details of what was found after as well as paraphrasing of the last audio recording.
Treadwell seems to have believed he would have his work turned into a tv programme and also made audacious claims and lies about other elements of his private life. The truth is he was not charasimatic enough nor balanced enough regardless of some of the amazing footage he captured. He over sentementalised events also. It was very sweet the footage he captured with the red foxes and they clearly trusted him but his regular declarations of him being the master and protector of the animals provided more of an insight into his psyche.
Did Treadwell achieve anything as far as helping/saving bears? Not much if anything I'd say. I suspect he was too far regarded as a joke figure or a 'loon' by most. I know of a more scientifically minded man who works very closely with black bears (far less dangerous than grizzly's though can and have killed) who does a lot of important research, radio collars bears, educates people etc. Treadwell did go into schools and spread his love of bears but goodness knows what the content of this was. It's a good film of a subject that deserves to be covered. It's filmed very sensitively but it's a sad tale on many levels.
on 7 March 2006
Werner Herzog is noted for making films that include 'animals doing unusual things' and 'long, extended landscape shots' (IMDB). Grizzly Man fulfills both criteria, but more unusual than the behaviour of the bears that feature in this brilliant documentary, is that of film's protagonist - Timothy Treadwell - an authentic American outsider who spent 13 long summers in a remote Alaskan wilderness documenting these wild creatures. It's an examination of this obsessive, eccentric and ultimately deluded man, who is misguided into the belief that he is able to 'make friends' with some of nature's most fearsome predators.
What makes this film especially interesting is the way Werner Herzog pieces it together as a kind of poem to man's relationship with nature, intercutting Treadwell's own - often inspirational - wildlife footage, his on-camera soliluquies, and interviews with family, friends and contemporaries. What catches the eye the most is the footage of Treadwell himself, ranging from his amusing wildlife 'presentations' to egomaniacal rants against the park authorities, poachers and other visitors to his remote hideaway.
What becomes apparent, and is expertly pieced together by Herzog, is that while Treadwell is selflessly committed to what he sees as the preservation of the bears, he may well be doing them as much harm as good, and he has faslely seen in them a mutual affinity that ultimately costs him and his girlfriend their lives. Is Treadwell's obsession with the bears embelmatic of his more problematic relationship with human society? What is it that he is escaping from? As Herzog himself points out in monologue, there are moments in Treadwell's films that are 'pure cinema'. What makes this film great is that he allows these moments to breath, while building up a sensitive but unromanticised portrait of a troubled soul. Along with 'Etre et Avoir' and 'Capturing the Friedmans' - one of the greats in the current renaissance of the documentary film.
on 23 June 2014
He was an obsessive, desperate man, that was clearly dismayed with humanity. The footage that he left behind is equal parts fascinating and unsettling. It is footage that needs the hands of a skilled film-maker like Warner Herzog to turn it into a cohesive movie.
It is cohesive, but sadly it's not that compelling. The footage is consistently mesmerising, and Herzog gives us plenty. But he also seems intent to give us plenty of his subjects inane ramblings. Letting the footage run to excruciating levels at times. It are these moments that make this feel like a bit of a character assassination
At times it's difficult to watch. However the director shows enough restraint to leave us to make up our own minds.
on 10 August 2015
I was expecting lingering shots of spectacular landscape and intimate portrayals of this most reclusive of animals, but it soon became apparent that the landscape was a mere backdrop to a character study, the brown bears reduced to lumbering extras with walk-on parts. The character in question is a maladjusted, self-deluding maverick, whom it is difficult to like. He harangues his unseen audience from the grave: he whines, he cries, he brags, he sneers, he challenges his protractors, asserts his moral superiority and displays openly and at length his particular form of neurosis. Herzog comments wryly that sometimes the appearance-conscious Treadwell exits stage left, to adjust his bandana or make some other cosmetic alteration, unwittingly leaving behind him a scene of breath-taking beauty and pure magic; his reappearance to resume or rerecord a rant abruptly breaking the spell. How much better it would have been if Treadwell had merely held the camera, instead of insisting on being in front of it, the better to deliver his tiresome homilies.
Without Herzog’s incisive and compassionate narrative, it would have been difficult to tolerate Treadwell. Interviews with his parents and friends indicate that he was disappointed by human relationships, and he seems to have evoked in others either unfaltering devotion (usually female) or profound dislike. The self-appointed bear protector, with his combative nature, could not avoid confrontations with the authorities and people who, frankly, knew better than he did.
Herzog also reveals that the image of the lone and self-reliant explorer, at one with nature, which Treadwell sought to convey, was not the entire truth either. Treadwell was usually accompanied by one or another woman during the thirteen summers he spent tracking brown bears, and he not only denied their contribution to his project but was as negligent of their safety as he was of his own. They never appeared in his frames, with the exception of Amy H, who was filmed fleetingly twice. Sadly, Amy, who shared his violent end, was already speaking openly about leaving him for good before their last, ill-fated expedition, and lost her own life in a courageous attempt to save his.
Despite all attempts at the sympathetic treatment of an awkward subject, Herzog divulges at the conclusion of the film that he does not share Treadwell’s romantic viewpoint. The bears’ blank stares reveal for him, he says, not the empathy and fellow-feeling of a persecuted species, as Treadwell’s sentimentality allows, but the indifference of nature. Their lives are arduous and brutal. For any animal behaviourist and bear specialist, Treadwell’s behaviour is naïve and dangerous in the extreme. Whilst admitting on camera that it is considered ill-advised to be in less than several hundred yards of a wild bear, Treadwell approaches them whilst they are feeding and actually touches them, with such preening insouciance that it appears he is almost willing them to attack him. What is ordinary to the point of banality about his story is his personal afflictions. But what is miraculous about it is that he survived as long as he did.
on 7 July 2014
Five stars says "I love it," but this isn't the kind of movie one loves -- any more than one might say, "I just loved that King Lear!" All I mean is that it is very compelling, in something of the same way that Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" is compelling. What drives people like Chris McCandless or Timothy Treadwell? we're tempted to ask. And Krakauer's book and Werner Herzog's movie exist in part to show that that question can't be answered and that yet what we're contemplating is a human life. So we reach for familiar terms --"crazy," "idiotic," "heroic" -- and realize that these categories don't help. They allow us the cheap luxury of judgment, but they add nothing to our understanding. What follows are some random comments on a fascinating documentary:
1. As a film-maker himself, Herzog (who narrates as well as directs) is fascinated by Timothy Treadwell's own film-making -- how deliberate and careful it is, even in the inhospitable conditions. Treadwell's focus of interest, even obsession, was the grizzlies, but he would do retakes of scenes of his own narration to get them the way he wanted them. Herzog also notes the histrionic element in Treadwell -- he's an actor as well as a film-maker, and he's conscious of how he wants to come across. So, the movie can be seen as a kind of tribute from one artist to another.
2. Treadwell seems to see himself as a protector of the grizzlies, even though the grizzlies aren't really in need of protection, living as they do within a National Park. There is hardly any poaching (though Treadwell talks as if there is), and it becomes clear that for him ANY human interaction with the bears, apart from his own, is seen as a kind of violation. Clearly it matters to Treadwell to see himself as a defender. We learn that some of his behavior in late adolescence and young manhood was rather self-destructive. Is his engagement with the bears -- 13 years worth of it -- a kind of over-compensation for his earlier carelessness? A kind of commitment to a very hard kind of caring? Incidentally, Treadwell was 47 when he died. He comes across as much younger, as if there is something not quite fully adult about him -- but then "adult" might be another of these unhelpful categories that make us think we're describing when in fact we're judging.
3. Like Chris McCandless, Treadwell seems to have won the affection of a number of people who have a sense of him as a special kind of person. There's something likeable about him, perhaps never more so than in the scenes with the foxes, which seem totally comfortable in his presence. He says he loves them, and they are lovable, and that helps us take seriously his assertions of his love for the bears -- that and the wonderful images of them, which, for all his sentimental rhetoric about them, nonetheless don't strike us (the viewers) as sentimental domestications. These are big hairy beasts, with huge claws and big teeth. We don't believe that he's blind to the dangerousness of these creatures -- and besides, we hear him say frequently that they might kill him, and that he would under no circumstances kill one of them (he was unarmed on his trips).
4. Treadwell does seem to believe that he has achieved something unusual, even unique, in the way he has established relations with the bears in the wild. He talks as if the bears "know" him in some meaningful way. Herzog at one point makes clear that he thinks that that was a dangerous illusion and that species boundaries are clear and uncrossable. When he looks into the eyes of a bear that Treadwell has filmed, he sees "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun" (Yeats's phrase, not used by Herzog, but you get the idea) indicative of an indifference of nature to us which we humans deny at our peril. Some others in the movie echo these sentiments. Are they right? Treadwell spent extended periods over thirteen years close to these creatures -- what boundary are we talking about exactly, anyway? Treadwell never thought of himself as a bear, nor (despite giving them names) did he see the bears as human, so his sense of his difference from the bears seems to me always present, despite his awareness of the unusual relation he is in.
5. The most disturbing character in the film is not Treadwell but the coroner who had the job of examining the remains of Treadwell and his girlfriend -- remains, as he is at pains to tell us, that had to be recovered from inside the bear that ate them. There is a creepy intensity about his narration that bothers me more than any of Treadwell's own sometimes self-aggrandizing comments. Talking of probably meaningless categories, I find myself wanting to call the coroner "unprofessional" -- but I really mean "creepy"!
6. I haven't made up my mind about the scene in which we see Herzog listening to audio of the deaths of Treadwell and his friend, played through headphones, while one of Treadwell's friends, an ex-lover, looks on. The viewer does not hear the audio. Herzog seems visibly upset by what he hears (he stops the audio before it's finished) and tells the woman to destroy the tape. What's the point of that scene? It seems perhaps self-indulgent on Herzog's part. Does it add anything?
Treadwell says that he would never hurt a bear, and we believe him (he is, in his own eyes, "the kind warrior"). In Coleridge's poem, The Ancient Mariner just up and killed the albatross. Why? It was in him to do it, just as it was in Treadwell to act as he did. In a sense that's no answer to the question of why, and yet it's maybe the only answer we can honestly give before the culturally-conditioned rationalizations kick in. Treadwell's life was a human life. Deal with it.
on 18 March 2014
I am a big fan of Werner Herzog's documentary work, including "Into the Abyss", "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", "Happy People: A Year in the Taiga" and "Encounters at the End of the World". I may not always agree with his viewpoint, but he never fails to bring an engaging documentary. Somehow I had never seen what is perhaps his best known documentary, "Grizzly Man". I finally corrected that oversight recently.
"Grizzly Man" (2005 release; 103 min.) brings the story of Timothy Treadwell, the self-proclaimed "protector" of grizzly bears in the Alaska Peninsula. The movie opens with footage from Treadwell in Alaska, proclaiming his love and loyalty and respect for the bears. Then we learn that after spending 13 summers in a row, Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in 2003. Herzog's documentary can be divided up into two parts: a look at the immediate circumstances of their deaths, and a broader look at the life ot Treadwell, including a selection of the ample amounts (over 100 hours, we are told) of footage he shot during his stays in Alaska. As to the immediate circumstances of their deaths: it is incredible difficult to sit through that, for obvious reasons. The attack of the bear was recorded on audio but not video, but thankfully we do not hear the audio. Beware: there are some gruesome/shocking pictures of those events shown in the documentary. As to Treadwell's life and his visits to Alaska,: it turns out he is a very troubled, and troubling, individual, almost delusional really. He talks about his respect for the bears and other animals, "loves" them the way I love my cat, except that of course bears and wild foxes are not pets. Even stranger are his repeated claims how he is "protecting" the bears, but not once do we see him actually DO something, other than hanging around. Most telling are the comments from the locals, including the Alaskan natives: "Tim crossed a line that we haven't crossed in 7,000 years. By showing up in their midst, he disrespected the grizzlies." Another comments: "Tim got what he deserved, he basically asked for it". Wow. Of course, the true tragedy is that his girlfriend, who didn't care much for the bears in the first place, was pulled into this tragedy, paying with her life. So sad.
"Grizzly Man" is an outstanding documentary, on so many levels. Even though it is hard to feel "bad" for Treadwell, given the overall circumstances, it nevertheless is a human story that should be seen, and who better to bring it than Werner Herzog. It's is yet another must-see documentary from the legendary German director. I'll go see any documentary he makes. "Grizzly Man" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
on 2 December 2010
"Grizzly Man" is a powerful movie by Werner Herzog, a movie about the life of Timothy Treadwell, who hardly needs a closer introduction. Treadwell lived around brown bears in Katmai (a national park in Alaska) for thirteen seasons in a row, somehow getting the wild bears to tolerate his presence. He became a national celebrity in the United States, claiming to defend the bears from poachers and other threats. In 2003, tragedy struck: Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by brown bears as they were camping in an area Treadwell called the Grizzly Maze.
Herzog's movie paints Treadwell as a loner who gradually looses grip on reality and rejects Western civilization as he becomes more and more obsessed with the bears. Treadwell wants to bond with Mother Nature, unable to realize that nature is chaos and brutality rather than love and harmony. Eventually, he looses it completely, and develops a veritable death wish. "Grizzly Man" implies that the death of Treadwell at the hands of a bear might actually have been a form of suicide. To Herzog, Treadwell is an idealist who crosses the line between beast and man, and gets punished for it. His destruction is seen as inevitable. In a sense, Timothy Treadwell becomes the New Age version of Aguirre.
I don't deny that the movie is captivating and the message powerfully delivered. But is it true? Probably not. Here and there, another possible explanation for Treadwell's behaviour emerges: he had a celebrity complex and wanted to shoot a sensational film, with himself as the lead actor. Judging by Mike Lapinski's book "Death in the Grizzly Maze", this comes closer to the truth. Frankly, I suspect Treadwell was something of a con artist. Where Herzog saw a man slowly descending into madness, I see an actor playing out a part. The man may have been "nuts" in the everyday sense of that term, not to mention reckless and irresponsible, but I can't find any evidence of a death wish in Lapinski's book. Still, even Lapinski is willing to concede that Treadwell might have suffered from a clinical condition, bipolar disorder.
Ultimately, of course, everyone must make up his or her own mind about Timothy Treadwell. "Grizzly Man" is a good place to start. Then, read Mike Lapinski's "Death in the Grizzly Maze", Nick Jans' "The Grizzly Maze" and Treadwell's own book "Among Grizzlies".