Werner Herzog’s brilliant new film “Grizzly Man” could be glibly described as “King of Comedy” by way of “Grizzly Adams” and it wouldn’t be far off. Herzog mines the currently vogue territory that has also been explored in such documentaries as “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Tarnation,” where very personal film footage is restructured to reveal the story behind the visuals. In Herzog’s hands, the film footage itself is held up to scrutiny as the audience is asked to examine the relationship between myth and reality and how stories can end up as a swirl of both and a creature of neither.
Timothy Treadwell, an amateur bear researcher who fancied himself a preservationist, lived among Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 years during the warm months before he was mauled in October of 2003. The last five years of his visits, Treadwell documented his experience on video and Herzog utilizes this footage to create a poetic, respectful, and disturbing examination not merely of man’s clumsy interaction with nature, but also of the bravery and beauty that can arise from innocence in the form of stupidity.
Early in the film, Herzog includes a clip of Treadwell on the Letterman show talking about his life with the bears.
“Is it going to happen that one we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” Letterman asks him. The audience laughs, as does Treadwell, but the scene is uncomfortable. Though poised as the jokester, Letterman has broken the boundaries of show business — and, therefore, illusion — by pointing out that it is surely a very bad idea to get so close to grizzlies for such a protracted period of time.
The laughter provides a meth-od for everyone to shrug off something so horrific, so inevitable — and as we learn from the film, Treadwell is not quite as adept as Letterman at dismissing illusions. In fact, the illusion of his life as he presented it may be his single driving force, much more than the grizzlies that constantly surround him.
“I smell death all over my fingers,” Treadwell proclaims in one of his many monologues, which segue between explanations of what a dangerous situation he has put himself in and various forms of self analysis. Explaining the multitude of ways a bear could kill him — not as any form of realistic contemplation, but as bravado to pepper his image as naturalist — becomes a mantra for Treadwell. With a hysterical style that seems to be his clumsy take on a nature show host, Treadwell believes he is providing an important context for his pretend audience, mostly in contrast to much of his interaction with the animals, which consists of oblivious, lovey dovey baby talk. He comes off like a surfer boy Mr. Rogers or, perhaps, the real life personification of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka.
The film doesn’t quite present Treadwell the Fool, however. The fact remains that the man lived on and off 13 years with grizzly bears, certainly a dangerous venture, and he managed to get some astounding footage and only met his end under some extenuating circumstances. Instead, Herzog focuses on Tread-well the Film-maker and, if you consider Treadwell as the ultimate in personal kamikaze film making, it is no surprise he wins Herzog’s admiration.
Herzog also is busy providing the context that Treadwell could not see clear enough and certainly chooses some footage that Treadwell probably never would have in order to make his point. There are two kinds of knowledge to be gleaned from filmed images — the intended and the underlying — and the land in between might be the actual revelation. With Herzog as the caretaker of the raw footage, the image that Treadwell so carefully attempted to craft for himself slips away even as he sheds his feel good, fairy tale persona for that of a angry, partially hysterical, foul mouthed, egotistical paranoiac, a signpost that there is far more going on here than even Treadwell or any of his old friends, interviewed by Herzog, could have imagined.
Filmmaker to the end, Treadwell turned his camera on during the bear attack that took his life and his girlfriend’s — the lens cap was still on but the moment was captured in sound. In one haunting and riveting scene, Herzog presents the coroner on the case reenacting the final recording as he heard it. Later, Herzog listens to the actual footage in headphones while sitting with Jewel, Treadwell’s old girlfriend and associate. His voice is noticeably disturbed when he asks Jewel to turn the recording off, and more so when he begs her to never listen to the recording herself, In fact, he demands that she destroy the tape so that no one can ever hear it.
The scene is as much a testament to Herzog’s artistry as it is to his humanity. No tale of Treadwell would be served by any audience hearing that recording and Herzog knows this. It diverts all possible truths of Treadwell’s story into one horrifying moment that could define it with a useless, sensational message. Herzog is aware that it is not Treadwell’s death that is important, but the 13 years that lead up to it, and there is no certainly no myth-making possible from the finality of such sounds as his excruciating death.
At this point, Her-zog turns to deconstruction, delving into Tread-well the Man and an examination of how his life was expressed through these films. Herzog learns, among other things, that the bears encompass a mirror that Treadwell held up to himself as he attempted to control realities and perceptions whether he was in the world of bears or humans. If one is talking in terms of art, then this becomes the consistent thread through Treadwell’s creative work.
Herzog seizes the broad themes from the odd story of Timothy Treadwell and directs them towards an examination the the mechanics of mythology.
I do wonder if, in another era, Timothy Treadwell might have fallen into the same realm of tall tales and legends with the likes of Johnny Appleseed and others who exist through a chamber of myth that renders the real circumstances of their lives at such a distance that the person is no longer as resonant as the stories that surround him.
We have no live footage of Johnny Appleseed to taint the myth or to help us understand him better, so Timothy Treadwell will have to do.