Grizzly Man

Alaska Men
Werner Herzog
Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Willy Fulton
The Setup: 
Documentary about a guy who lived in close proximity to grizzlies for several years.

I wasn’t that interested in this when it came out, then people began saying how brilliant it was, then people began saying ‘even if it sounds like you won’t like it you should see it because you will like it,’ and suchlike, but by the time I finally came around it was gone. The deal is this: this guy Timothy Treadwell lived up in Alaska during the summers and followed around the bunch of Grizzlies that lived there, insisting that he was ‘protecting’ them. He made many hours of video footage of the bears, but also his own pseudo-documentary footage where he directly addresses the camera and talks about himself and the bears. After a few years of this, he was killed and eaten by a grizzly.

The movie begins with Treadwell facing the camera with some bears in the background. He talks about how he must remain master of the bears and not show weakness, for “once there is weakness they will exploit it. They will take me out. They will decapitate me and chop me into bits and pieces.” So we know right off the bat that Treadwell is crazy, because he’s talking about bears cutting off his head and chopping him into bits… a little imaginative for what bears can actually do.

Then we meet Willy Fulton, charter plane pilot and former rodeo rider [Schhhwwwing!], who sports a nice big ‘stache and a raspy, gravelly voice that, in the words of my former boyfriend, “could make you cum just by calling on the phone.” OHHHH, Willy, make LOVE to me. Here I was, ready to consider all the special issues of mental illness, and ending up with my tongue hanging out on the floor gazing in lust at former rodeo rider Willy. Boy, I gotta get to Alaska. Do they still publish Alaska Men? Anyway, Willy describes his experience finding what’s left of the body and seeing the bear that did it. He says that he thinks “the bears might have thought there was something wrong with him [Treadwell], like he was mentally retarded or something.” Then a few different people mention that they had the feeling that Treadwell himself wanted to become a bear. I am so not going to make a joke about how losing his razor, getting a sleeveless flannel shirt and a pawprint tattoo would take him far in that world.

We find out that Treadwell, who says he “must be a spirit in the wilderness,” would shoot several takes of his narration scenes, ostensibly until he came up with one he was happy with. One can only imagine the film he imagined all of this footage adding up to. He says that “if there is a God he would LOVE me,” because he is caring for all of God’s creatures. There are also many references to how Treadwell does not fare well with women, and at a particular point he takes this tangent of: “I always wished I was gay. It would have been a lot easier. You can just go into restrooms and truck stops and perform sex. It’s like, so easy.” He then laments that women are hard to get over, “but you can rebound if you’re gay.” I found this fascinating. Okay sure, Treadwell is a nutcase of the highest order, but I think he’s not the only one who shares this viewpoint. It’s kind of incredible to me that some straight people think gays are having fulfilling sex in a restroom, comparable [or in fact better] than you might get on a DATE with a woman. It stuns me that they think that 1) the quick, furtive nature of these encounters, 2) the fear of someone coming in at any moment, 3) the fact that afterwards you will probably never see that person again, and 4) the fact that it is all illegal and could very well result in an embarrassing imprisonment would not impinge on such an encounter being a fully satisfying sexual experience. Again, comparable to a DATE with a woman, where you can go home and make—LEGAL—love at your own leisure in the privacy of your own home, a quickie blow job in a restroom is probably not the more attractive option. As for how quickly gays “rebound” from failed relationships, this results both from the chipper, happy face many gays try to put on every situation in life [“Break-up? Time for Cosmos!”], and the straight perception, in part based on that, that gays do not make serious emotional connections, but just have a series of superficial flings based on how hot the other partner looks on one’s arm. Again I know, Treadwell’s a loon, but I think these perceptions of his are not unknown in the straight world at large. Woo-hoo… I guess I didn’t know I had it so good.

Then, after meeting the REALLY odd coroner, who is very moved that Amy stayed and ended up getting killed alongside Treadwell instead of running away, as he was telling her to do. It would be hard for me to fully express to you how VERY odd this coroner is. Then we meet Treadwell’s former girlfriend Jewell who met him at a restaurant where she was overwhelmed with all the “Grandmas and babies and hairdos and coats.” Later she plays the tape of Treadwell being eaten for Herzog [in headphones, we never hear the tape] and he says “You must never listen to this tape,” and she says “I never will,” and he says “You must never look at the photos.” At this point director Herzog himself was beginning to get on my nerves as a little overbearing and overdramatic, a feeling that did not diminish when we’re looking at a cragged glacier and he says “This landscape in turmoil is a metaphor for his soul,” and later, when he informs us that “I believe that the common denominator of the universe is chaos, hostility and murder.” Thanks for the 411, ‘Zog!

But things are about to go from interesting to really interesting. First we have this amazing nature footage of a fight between two bears… it’s incredible to watch them grab each other and slide and essentially look like two human wrestlers. Then we get some quality backstory on Treadwell himself. There are interviews with his parents [whose very appearance explains a lot], and a glimpse of his favorite teddy bear from childhood, which he apparently kept until young adulthood. We find out that he was on an episode of Love Connection [why don’t we get to see that?], and was a failed actor who was apparently devastated when he didn’t get the job on Cheers that eventually went to Woody Harrelson. He was apparently big into narcotics, involved with “lots of drugs and bad people with guns,” and after a big drug overdose, attempted to just completely change his persona and try to convince everyone that he was an orphan from the Australian Outback!

We then continue with footage of Treadwell crying that the bears “are so fucked over,” [though HOW, exactly, they’re so fucked over is not quite as clear], and thanking a fox for being his friend. Then he insults God for not giving them rain for a few weeks—and the next thing is a massive storm that nearly destroys his camp. Finally some people come to the area—perhaps admirers coming to visit Treadwell—but he thinks they are agents sent there to threaten him into giving up on the bears, and interprets a stack of small rocks with a smiley face as “very threatening.” Then we know that Treadwell died, and soon my darling Willy comes on to sing a song and win my true love forever. Oh Willy, take me away from all this.

Mmmm, I don’t know. It was good, but nowhere near as fascinating as I had expected. Maybe it had just been built up too much. We learn first thing that Treadwell is going to die, and that he’s nuts… and this makes me want to see his past history and his family with an eye to how he ended up this way, and while there was some information on this [which I found to be the most interesting part of the movie], there just isn’t enough. Contrast this with Crumb, which remains the model for including enough information about its protagonists’ family history for one to make a diagnosis and come away feeling like one has received a very detailed portrait. What we get here is primarily a LOT of footage of Treadwell acting crazy. Which also can be done better—contrast this with Grey Gardens, which comprised mostly footage of its subjects acting nutso, with very little tantalizing biographical information, but remained fascinating throughout.

But Treadwell is only 2/3rds of the story… I think another aspect that fascinated Herzog is that this documentary is also about film itself… Treadwell left hundreds of hours of film, often with multiple takes of himself giving the same speech, staging little scenes that the would pretend had occurred naturally, and attempting to position himself as a particular public figure. So what Herzog did is take all of this found material and mold it into a film, one that changed the subject of the material from Treadwell’s mission to protect the bears to Treadwell himself. So that’s semi-interesting, but might have been even more interesting if it had been shored up by more material about Treadwell’s attempt to get into acting and create personas for himself, which would then make us see this entire project in a different light.

So overall, a quite interesting documentary, just not quite as interesting as I’d hoped.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, can’t hurt.