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Timothy Treadwell was a B student, who started college on a diving scholarship, but soon fell victim to a serious drinking problem. Trying to break into acting, his failure to win the role of the bartender on the TV series Cheers (it went to Woody Harrelson) pushed Treadwell into a life-altering tailspin. He was able to stop drinking by reinventing himself as an amateur wildlife expert. He went on to film and videotape thirteen seasons of wildlife in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, and the over one hundred hours of recordings he left behind contain unique footage of brown (“grizzly”) bears, wild foxes, Steve Corwin-style commentary, and what, over the years, evolved into a candid video diary.
Treadwell loved “his” bears, finding a role for himself in the world as a wildlife educator and conservationist. The more time he spent living in the Alaskan wilderness, the greater his sense of alienation from fellow humans became. Increasingly, he came to openly hate and disparage (on camera) society. Treadwell’s oddness caught the attention of the media, and he rose to the status of celebrity, including an appearance on the David Letterman Show. In a pique of rage over a disputed airline ticket on his annual end of season return to civilization, Treadwell decided to go back to the wilderness. It was October, very late in the season, later than Treadwell had ever been in bear territory. Within a very short time, he and his girlfriend, were eaten alive by his beloved bears.
Treadwell’s fleeting moment of media fame caught the world’s attention. That, and the legacy of his incredible film footage, caught Werner Herzog’s attention. The tapes reveal Treadwell to be passionate, child-like, vulnerable, self-deceiving, even delusional. Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man is almost a kind of “documentary as found art,” and what fascinates most are the layers of unexpected revelation. The inherent drama, and tragedy, that unfolds in Grizzly Man echoes the unexpected story that emerged as Capturing the Friedmans.
Herzog intersplices wildlife footage, Treadwell’s on-camera narration (intended to be edited into broadcast segments) and segments of his video diary with interviews of those who knew him in life – notably, the bush pilot who flew him in and out every season, a former girlfriend, Treadwell’s parents (who seem to dwell in the same Long Island that Diane Arbus photographed), and the coroner who examined the two people’s body parts which had to be extracted from the attacking bear’s gut. The coroner’s on-camera performance is a gem of unwitting self-revelation, a documentary-within-a-documentary, as he lectures and moralizes, admonishes and castigates, like some 1930s public health official warning against the effects of violating the natural order of the animal kingdom.
Treadwell was concerned with studying and protecting “grizzly bears.” Herzog is not. Herzog’s concern is with exploring the dimensions of a dynamic, deeply troubled social misfit. Herzog is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his films Fitzcarraldo (famous for the extreme difficulties involved in making it, including moving a 340-ton steam ship over a mountain), Aguirre: The Wrath of God and his seminal documentary Burden of Dreams (on the making of Fitzcarraldo). Herzog’s obsession with hubris and heroism, folly and madness–in short madmen at war with a mad world (whether nature or civilization), makes his attraction to the Timothy Treadwell story understandable. Herzog finds in Treadwell echoes of his film characters–a driven, obsessed, in this case real-life man-child who reveals himself not through introspection, but almost wholly through expression and action.
The most beguiling aspect of Treadwell for Herzog’s philosophical exploration may lie in Herzog’s fascination with the feral. In The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser, an important early film, Herzog took up the key question he returns to in Grizzly Man. The historical Kaspar Hauser was a feral child, raised in total isolation from humankind and set free one day around the age of seventeen. The young man was too unsocialized to ever make much headway in becoming integrated into human society. In Herzog’s version, religion and science and most human knowledge tend to appear as monumental self-delusion (from Hauser’s uncomprehending perspective). The world is indeed hostile and alien and very un-human.
Herzog sees in Timothy Treadwell a kind of megalomaniacal anti-hero. The degree of self-delusion becomes almost self-parodying, making Treadwell seem at times like the younger brother of Dale Gribble, the paranoid, gun-toting, conspiracy theorist neighbor on King of the Hill. Treadwell sees himself more like Joy Adams (who became world famous in the 1960s through her book, and then movie, Born Free, about her life living with and studying the lions of East Africa). The Timothy Treadwell Herzog finds was on a quest to become feral in adulthood, to realign external reality to match his experience of society as hostile and alien and very un-human. Unlike the disarmingly charming Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about another real-life amateur wildlife expert who found connection back to humanity through his loving interactions with the wildlife, bears do not lend themselves to the same degree of anthropomorphizing or spiritual redemption.
Parrots can be cuddly, bears cannot. And no amount of xenophilia (loving another species) can augment this. As much as he wishes it, Treadwell can never become a real bear or be accepted as one by other bears. The tragedy of Treadwell would appear to be the simple fact of the impossibility of attaining his desire, a desire which is basic and necessary for survival. He lives in a universe in which he is incapable of surviving.
Grizzly Man is not a wildlife film, though it contains astonishing footage afforded by Treadwell’s intimate proximity to these animals. Nor is it a polemic from the radical animal activist community. The film project has been met with a good deal of hostility, willful misunderstanding, and wrong-headed denouncements of Treadwell; some of this is captured in Herzog’s interviews. Rather than derailing any message of Treadwell’s self-styled conservation activism, these all underscore Herzog’s real point, a character study of a passionate, driven, eccentric man, who, for Herzog, embodies the tragic impossibility of the human condition.