random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Wednesday, August 9, 2006

DVD REVIEW: Grizzly Man (2005) ****

Grizzly Man (2005) Big Release

rated R (for language)
1 hr, 43 min.
written, directed, & narrated by: Werner Herzog
music by: Richard Thompson

I had heard about this documentary movie last year. I knew it was about some guy who spent a lotta time living with bears in the wild and wound up dying at the paws of on of 'em. That caught my curiosity right there. Then I found out that Richard Thompson did the score. I knew I'd eventually see it. Now, with a newborn at home and some time off work I find myself playing catch up with that list of movies I still have to see.

German director Herzog narrates with such hypnotizing cadence that you simply relaxed and enthralled by the life and death of amateur grizzly expert and wildlife conversationalist, Timothy Treadwell. In "Grizzly Man", Herzog documents the documentary bear-lover who spent at least two months (sometimes more) in the wild tundra of Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve. Treadwell lived unarmed among the bears for thirteen summers, and filmed his adventures in the wild during his final five seasons. In October 2003, Treadwell's remains, along with those of his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were discovered near their campsite, they had been mauled and devoured by a grizzly, the first known victims of a bear attack in the park. The bear suspected of the killings was later shot by park officials.

Founder of the organization Grizzly People, Treadwell devoted his life to the preservation of bears, co-authored a book with Jewel Palovak, "Among Grizzlies," and educated thousands of schoolchildren about bears. Treadwell also used his charisma and growing celebrity to spread the grizzly gospel, appearing on television shows including "The Late Show with David Letterman," downplaying the dangers of his encounters. What I later found out is the DVD I watched stated that "This film has been modified from the theatrical version" which usually means to me that it would not be shown in widescreen. That wasn't the case. What that mean was that the whole Letterman show bit was omitted cuz in that interview Letterman asked, "Is it going to happen? That we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?"."

Timothy Treadwell in Lions Gate Films' Grizzly Man

Sadly it turned out Letterman predicted correctly. Herzog does not support Treadwell's ways or condemn them. He merely shows us his life through interviews with those who knew him, his parents, and through hundreds of hours of Treadwell's own footage. As the film began I was in awe that this guy decided to just immerse himself in such wilderness and danger. But, then as his story unfolded I realized this guy definitely had some inner demons. He had tried to make it as an actor and by his account....failed. In an interview, his father stated that when he didn't get the role of the bartender in the television show "Cheers" (which went to Woody Harrelson) that began his downward spiral. He became an alcoholic and tried many different ways of treatment. Then his interest in bears came and he wanted to "protect them." He decided that these bears needed him sober and that's when he quit one addiction and went to one that proved even more dangerous.

But was Timothy Treadwell a passionate and fearless environmentalist who devoted his life to living peacefully among Alaskan grizzly bears in order to save them? Or was he a deluded misanthrope whose reckless actions resulted in his own death, as well as those of his girlfriend and one of the bears he swore to protect? Guess it depends on your point of view. I see him as someone who passionately loved the animal world. Seeing him play and run with the red foxes that he befriended was pretty amazing. Yet, there was a sadness and disregard for his own life that was alarming. In his camera footage of which he was many times the star, you see him say, " love these bears. I would die for them." Clearly, he has crossed the line that we all should have between humans and wild animals. He wanted to be a bear among the bears. He was lucky to live as long as he did. But, his luck ran out.

During his last two or three years in the wilderness, Treadwell was joined by his new girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Herzog is able to find only one photograph of her, and when she appears in Treadwell's footage (rarely) her face is hard to see. Treadwell liked to give the impression that he was alone with his bears, but Herzog shows one shot that is obviously hand-held -- by Amie, presumably.

Ironically, Treadwell and Huguenard had left for home in the September when they died. Treadwell got into an argument with an Air Alaska employee, canceled his plans to fly home, returned to the "Grizzly Maze" area where most of the bears he knew were already hibernating, and was killed and eaten by an unfamiliar bear that, it appears, he photographed a few hours before his death.

The cap was on his video camera during the attack, but audio was recorded. Herzog listens to the tape in the presence of his close friend (and co-founder of Grizzly People) Jewel Palovak, and then tells her: "You must never listen to this. You should not keep it. You should destroy it because it will be like the white elephant in your room all your life." His decision not to play the audio in his film is a wise one, not only out of respect to the survivors of the victims, but because to watch him listening to it is, oddly, more effective than actually hearing it. We would hear, he tells us, Treadwell screaming for Amie to run for her life, and we would hear the sounds of her trying to fight off the bear by banging it with a frying pan.

The documentary is an uncommon meeting between Treadwell's loony idealism, and Herzog's bleak worldview. Treadwell's footage is sometimes miraculous, as when we see his close bond with a fox who has been like his pet dog for 10 years. Or when he grows angry with God because a drought has dried up the salmon run and his bears are starving. He demands that God make it rain and, what do you know, it does. Against this is Herzog, on the soundtrack: "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." And over footage of one of Treadwell's beloved bears: "This blank stare" shows not the wisdom Treadwell read into it, but "only the half-bored interest in food."


"In the Edges: The Grizzly Man Session," a 50-minute documentary on the making of the film's music with Herzog in a San Francisco studio that threw together musicians that have never played to together led by Richard Thompson. These musicians had two days to put together music and none of them had seen footage of the film until then. It's some great studio session workand should appeal to any behind-the-scenes or music fan.

Grizzly Man (2005) Big Early

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