Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog’s film about Timothy Treadwell, mostly using Treadwell’s own footage of his time living among grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Treadwell spent each of thirteen summers up to 2003 mainly in two areas of the park where a community1 of grizzly bears lived and foraged. During the last three years of this stint, Treadwell went to the field with video cameras and produced quite a bit of footage. In 2003 he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and mostly eaten by a bear.
I am writing this review of a film released in 2005 because I only now have seen it. There are three reasons that I did not watch this film earier, and they are important in contextualizing my comments so I’ll mention them: 1) I often watch movies years after they are released. In this case, this means that the reactions to the movie at the time are not fresh in my memory, or in most cases, even known to me. This is important because it means that I have the luxory of being selective in what I pay attention to in formulating my comments, which is very much my intention in this case. This is not a comprehensive review. 2) I avoided watching the film because I more or less accepted the common wisdom at the time (which is persistent today): This was a film about a crazy guy who taunted, by his presence, large carnivores until they finally ate him. As a person who has done the same thing (except the part about being eaten) though much less extensively (and with permission from the authorities and at a smaller scale), I find this story interesting, but also uninteresting, and thus not necessarily compelling enough to have pursued the film when it came out. As you will see below, I now realize that my assumption is incorrect. 3) The first Herzog film I ever saw was not a Herzog film, but rather, a film about a Herzog film, Burden of Dreams. This film made me dislike Herzog enough to avoid his other films. I usually don’t decide what films to watch based on my opinion of the director or actors, but there are limits. Having seen Grizzley Man, I like Herzog a bit better.
Much of the documentary consists of footage showing Treadwell filming himself talking to the camera about bears, about himself and bears, about his knowledge of and interest in bears vis-a-vis his work traveling around to schools teaching about bears, and his opinions about the National Park service, on whose land he resided (not entirely legally) for these visits. He discussed his own alcoholism and how being in the wilderness had more or less cured him of this. (Or at least he implies this.) He repeatedly talks about how dangerous what he is doing is, and how he could be eaten by a bear at any time, but he also talks about how he knows how to handle them and how it is impossible for him to be eaten by them. There are a handful of scenes in Herzog’s film, and I assume that this represents most of the better available examples, of Treadwell interacting very closely with some bear or another, and some of those interactions could be called (but probably really aren’t) “close calls.”
One gets the impression that it was difficult to set these shots up, especaily when Treadwell was working alone. He would set a camera up on a tripod with a bear (or something) off in the distance, and position himself in front of the bear (or whatever) and do a take. He’d have some sort of message. He’d finish the take, and having delivered the message he’d do it again. Each time the message was delivered differently. In some cases (and we don’t know how much Herzog selected for this) the deliveries would become increasingly dogmatic or frenetic or angry or otherwise emotion-filled. Late in the documentary Treadwell records one of his last sequences in which he talks about the park service in less than complementary terms. His dialog seems almost like it was written by David Mamet. If you fucking know the fuck what I fucking mean. Treadwell’s anger at the Park Service is epic.
Another theme of this film that I find fascinating is his relationship with a “family” of foxes. Sometime near the beginning of his decade plus sequence of Alaskan forays, he took in (or befriended, or fed scraps to until it stopped being scared) a red fox cub, who then grew up and had more cubs, who were also friendly. These foxes acted as domestic dogs in his presence, hanging out with him, being petted by him, and so on. I can only guess that he fed them. One scene has him mourning over the disembodied head of one of the fox family’s cubs, the victim of getting a bit too close to a pack of wolves.
Something that I remember from when the documentary first came out was fear, loathing, and controversy over the possibility that Herzog would use the video documentation of Treadwell’s death in the film. He didn’t. The last year or so that Treadwell was in the bush, and possibly for earlier years, he was not entirely alone, but had a girlfirend and helper with him. There is one interesting scene used by Herzog when Treadwell is offloading supplies from the float plane that brought him there every year, and a female comes into the shot to help with the work. He shoo’s her out of the shot and reminds her the he is “supposed to be alone” so she can’t be seen in the film. Anyway, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were in camp when the deadly bear attack happened. Someone had the presence of mind (as it were) to turn on a video camera, but the lens cap never came off. We do not hear the audio in Herzog’s documentary. Instead, we get this:
1) The medical examiner who handled the remains describes the recording;
2) A woman who is Treadwell’s friend and former girlfriend and Herzog sit together while Herzog listens to part of it on a head set. Eventually Herzog tells her that although this tape is hers to do with what she will, she should never listen to it, and she should destroy it.
3) Herzog’s voiceover describes what is in it.
I wont’ describe those details to you, but it is gruesome.
Now, here is the most important thing that I observed in the film, but before I tell you what it is I must ask you to promise to read the caveat that follows. Promise? OK.
According to everybody I’ve spoken to about this, including people who knew some of the individuals in the film, including but not limited to Treadwell, and individuals not affiliated with the Park Service but who have some inside knowledge, and according to the general knowledge of the events (yes, even including the version of the Wikipedia page I consulted) Treadwell spent some 13 years hanging around with a community of bears and one day one of the bears ate him. But, according to Herzog, Treadwell spent some 13 years hanging around with a community of bears, then left the field at the end of his 13 years to go back to the Lower Forty-Eight. Then, something bad happened related to an airplane ticket, and a frustrated Treadwell and his girlfriend returned to the field. Even before they first left the field, many of the bears in the community he had gotten to know (and who had gotten to know him) over the years had gone off to hibernate. Then, during the time they were away from the site messing around with airplane tickets, the rest of the bears went off to hibernate. When they returned, according to Herzog citing Treadwell, there was an older male itinerant bear hanging around, which he proceeded to film. It seems that this bear was underfed as it was going through some serious effort to get at some hard to recover salmon remains.
Some time later, that bear, one that Treadwell had not habituated to himself (but one that was known to the Park Service, having been knocked down and labeled decades earlier) killed and ate him and his girlfriend.
You can see why this makes a difference. The claim can simply not be made, if this is accurate, that Treadwell hung around with some bears for several years who finally got tired of him or got hungry ir got annoyed and ate him. Rather, to be honest about this, given the above outlined series of events, Treadwell actually successfully did what he claimed to do. Then, an unhabituated bear of a more rogue disposition did him in and ate a more or less innocent bystander as well.
What I find interesting is that this detail is unacceptable to most who hear about it. It is simply not posssible for many to give up on the idea that Treadwell did something stupid and inappropriate and got his comuppance for it. However, that is not a reasonable stance, nor is it necessary. It is perfectly reasonable to claim that Treadwell did several things that were stupid and/or inappropriate. Regardless of his seeming sucess, he had no business hanging around with this community of bears. He violated numerous park service rules. He habituated two (or more) generations of wild fox. And then, he bothered a bear that ate him, and got his girlfriend killed a long the way.
There is no need to perpetuate the lie that his own bears turned on him to vilify him to one’s heart’s content.
Of course, this may not be a lie (or, put more mildly, it may not be a misconception). I’m told by some very good sources that it is not. Is Herzog wrong? Did Herzog change the story? Or did Herzog simply notice a nuance not previously noticed? I do not know.
A second criticism of Treadwell often leveled is that he was crazy, or more specifically, delusional or bipolar. Maybe. Even probably. One sees this in Herzog’s film, even if it is not stressed by the narration. However, I want to give Treadwell a bit of a break in this regard. First, yes, he ‘went bush’ in a big way, but so do many people who spend that much time in the bush, either alone or almost alone, and having frequent traumatic encounters (which one tends to have when hanging around with deadly predators and such). But there is a second element added here: Treadwell was filming himself, and took the liberty to talk to himself via the lens. Alone, or more or less alone, we see his inner voice coming out. That inner voice is manic, often angry, belies deep confusion. He is a poster child for why people who do long term remote fieldwork should receive some special training in advance if possible. But in the end, his expressions and commentary and manic ranting may not be as different from what you or I would do under similar circumstances, whether you want to believe that or not. (I may or may not believe it myself.) Or, at least, the gulf one might imagine between Treadwell’s rants and the calm continence of the civilized and urbane blog-reader may not be as broad as you, dear reader, might be entirely comfortable with.
I mentioned a caveat. The caveat is this, and I’ve alluded to it above: More than one source with connections close to the events assures me that the bear that ate the Treadwell Party was one of those he had partly habituated and hung around with for years. Herzog says otherwise. I have a call in with Herzog but apparently his agent feels no need to get back to me. (This is a problem when Big Famous Director makes a documentary … it’s not really a documentary if the maker is not accountable for what is in it, at least to some degree!)
I’m hoping my contacts and sources, maybe Herzog himself, will come up with some sort of clarification. If that happens, I’ll let you know.
1I’m using the word “community” as an informal term to refer to the presumably fluctuating group of bears that habitually live and forage in a given area. It appears that from year to year a more or less similar set of bears lived in the two habitats Treadwell spent time in.