Thursday, March 16, 2006

Grizzly Man

I saw a very disturbing documentary called Grizzly Man about two weeks ago. The film was about a naturalist named Timothy Treadwell who was so enamored of the grizzly bears in Alaska that he dedicated his life to studying them and living so close to them that they eventually killed him.

Treadwell is alternately portrayed as a caring, child-like soul and an egomaniacal asshole. The film combines footage shot by Treadwell himself in the months (and hours) leading up to his horrific death with interviews with friends and family shot by director Werner Herzog. The director tries hard not to be judgmental, but one can see that he views Treadwell's death as senseless.

Treadwell's pre-naturalist life seems senseless as well. He was a drug abuser, and he had tried his luck as an actor, narrowly losing to Woody Harrelson for the role on Cheers. Evidently losing that role was so devastating to Treadwell that he retreated from reality and sought solace as far away from civilization as possible -- with wild animals in Alaska.

The footage shot by Treadwell is really impressive. Over the years he had built up such a (misguided) confidence in his ability to approach bears, he got REALLY close to them. In many scenes he's, oh, 10 feet away from a full-grown male grizzly that is not tame. Probably the creepiest part of the movie is when he's talking to the camera about an older bear who has been having difficulty finding food and is starving. He warns the audience that this is the sort of bear that kills people and he jokingly says over his shoulder to the bear, "How about it? Are you the one that's going to kill me?" And of course, that is the one that eventually kills both Treadwell and his girlfriend.

The mauling, which is, admittedly, what everyone deep down really wants to see, is not in the film. Herzog surmises that the attack by the rogue bear happened so fast that Treadwell and his girlfriend never got the lens cap off of their camera. However, the camera was on in Treadwell's final moments and the audio of the attack was captured. Herzog doesn't let us hear that, which is for the best, I think. He does listen to it himself with headphones and also plays it for the coroner. They both react with horror, as you would expect. Evidently the bear bit Treadwell in the head and briefly released him. Treadwell was too badly hurt to get away, but he tried to tell his girlfriend to run. She didn't. She tried to attack the bear with a frying pan, with predictable results.

I wouldn't call this a great documentary, but it is thought-provoking and worth renting.

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