Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary Grizzly Man (Lions Gate), was a manic but lovable whack-job who doggedly filmed and obsessively idealized the bears that would ultimately eat him (along with his poor girlfriend). As a protagonist, Treadwell could have been manufactured by Herzog, who made his reputation spinning sagas of mad dreamers determined to triumph over a nature that bit back, hard. The confluence of the drama-queen Treadwell, whose own footage of bears (and his histrionic self) is the core of the film, and Herzog, who provides passionate, searching, and helplessly hambone audio commentary, makes for quite an emotional roller-coaster ride. You don’t know whether to celebrate or mock, to laugh or weep.
The nutty thing about Treadwell is that—for all the talk of his “acting like a bear”—he’s a dead ringer for Corky St. Clair, the gay theater director played by Christopher Guest in Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. There is the same self-dramatization (“I am a samurai warrior when challenged!”), the same wounded petulance, the same overflowing sentimentality: “I love you! I love you!… He’s a big bear, yes he is.” He is, indeed, a big bear—big enough to take off a man’s head. Treadwell traveled to schools to preach the gospel of nature, appeared with David Letterman (who wondered aloud whether he’d pick up a paper one day and read that Treadwell had been eaten), and spoke of the danger to bears from poachers—although these bears live on a remote Alaskan nature preserve (a portion of which, where Treadwell was killed, is known as “the maze”) and seem more likely to be shot with Instamatics than rifles.
If my tone is insufficiently respectful, it’s only because Grizzly Man itself often plays like a Christopher Guest “mockumentary.” (What’s with the weirdly exhibitionistic coroner? Is he auditioning for CSI?) The movie is also informed by Herzog’s irony. Although the director finds a kind of cinematic holiness in much of Treadwell’s astonishingly beautiful bear footage (along with sequences that involve congenial and very cute foxes), he also quotes a Native American museum curator who speaks—credibly—of the boundary between bear and man that Eskimos for 7,000 years knew enough not to cross. The ultimate disrespect for the bears, he says, with faint contempt, is not to observe that line.
Grizzly Man has the tang of the famous chapter in Moby Dick, Melville’s sardonic answer to the Transcendentalist movement, which produced Thoreau (and Whitman). You might sit astride a mast and feel your oneness with nature, Melville wrote, but fall into the sea and you’re going to get eaten. For all his attention to his bears, for all his boasts that he was “on the precipice of death” and could be attacked at any moment, Treadwell didn’t fully see nature. Reinventing himself after years as a down-and-out alcoholic, he clearly turned the bears into his version of the “higher power” fervently embraced by members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Was Treadwell suicidal? He often said that his life and cause might be looked at more seriously if he died in the wilderness, although the bear that ate him and his girlfriend was riddled with bullets by rangers before Treadwell had even been digested, and the chief lesson to draw from his story is to do the exact opposite of what he did–to keep one’s distance from these huge predators. Parts of Grizzly Man are as bone-chilling as The Blair Witch Project—especially the footage from Treadwell’s final days. After railing at humankind (was he bipolar?) and an altercation with an “obese” airport gate agent (what was that about?), he and his girlfriend returned to the maze at a time of year when most of the more tolerant bears were hibernating, and only the old and desperate-for-food ones remained.
Treadwell inadvertently recorded his own death (the lens cap was on, so he didn’t film it), and Herzog shoots himself listening on headphones to the six minutes of screaming and Lord knows what else. He doesn’t share the tape with us and tells Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend to destroy it. You can respect the way Herzog handles that material and still roll your eyes at his theatrics. That’s very much true of the whole film—and its larger-than-life subject. Too bad he wasn’t larger than bears.