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Film Review

Grizzly Man

(August 14, 2005) Timothy Treadwell was a man obsessed with grizzly bears. He spent 13 summers, from 1991 through 2009, living with Alaskan grizzly bears on the Katmai Peninsula. He took extensive video footage of the bears and his interactions with them, but late in that last summer, he and his girl friend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a bear. Treadwell left behind over 100 hours of video footage, and it is from those films that Werner Herzog has produced a masterpiece. Herzog has long been attracted to extreme people (Klaus Kinski, for one), but here he has sensational footage coupled with interviews with Treadwell's friends, parents, and others. There are three participants here: Treadwell, "his bears", and Herzog. Herzog's narration and interviews are probing, sensitive, but ultimately judgmental. He thinks that Treadwell was nearly delusional, and both courted and ignored the risk of being killed. We see much of Treadwell in his videos, as he narrates for his camera, repeats segments to get the result he wanted, and often hams it up. He is a tall handsome blonde guy with a Prince Valiant haircut wrapped in a bandana. His footage is stunning, and includes everything from a close up of two huge males fighting to his touching a bear on its snout as it investigates his camera, or chastising a bear for being too aggressive, or just rhapsodizing about how he is protecting the bears and how the bears have given him a new life. He knows the bears well in this area and has named them all, from Melissa to Sgt Brown to Chocolate. At one point, one of the bears takes a dump as it is walking past him. He puts his hand on the still warm poop, fascinated that it allows him to touch something that was just inside the bear moments ago. It seems to be no exaggeration that he was reborn by his encounters with the bears, from a troubled, would be actor involved in drugs, to someone who loved these animals and repeatedly said (on camera) that he was willing to die for them. He is theatric in many of his appearances, but it is clear that he knew the risks. This is not a gloomy film, although there is an air of foreboding because Herzog wisely describes Treadwell's death at the very beginning of the film. There is marvelous footage of two wild foxes playing with him and stealing his cap.

When Treadwell and Huguenard were killed, the camera had just been turned on, the sound running, but the lens cap still on. Herzog does not let you listen to this footage, but we see his pained and tearful face as he listens. And then tells Treadwell's ex-girlfriend (who inherited the rights to all the footage) to destroy this tape. An long interview with Dr. Fallico, the coroner, was riveting, not because it is graphic, but the way he tells the story. And his credit to Amie, who probably could have run away, but instead stayed in an attempted to beat the bear on the head with a skillet. She died minutes later, and some have criticized Treadwell for contributing to her death by returning with her to a particularly dangerous site.

But it is Herzog's narration that makes this film such a masterpiece. Ultimately Herzog concludes that the bears are only merciless like so much of nature, and implies that Treadwell was on a fool's errand. Yet Treadwell was a dreamer, a man who yearned to really live, to experience things that others had not, a man willing to take big risks. I felt that there was simultaneously a sympathetic and condemnatory tone to Herzog's comments, that failed to respect Treadwell's yearning to transcend his humanness. He may well have been partly delusional, but his urge to do these extreme things has been honored in many other endeavors. Remember the Englishman who sailed the tiny Gypsy Moth around the world, nearly dying in the attempt? Or the many mountaineers who deliberately do highly risky ascents with minimal equipment, or others who do very extreme adventures or sports. Or test pilots. It seems to me this is admirable, particularly when someone like Treadwell uses this impulse to attempt to "save" the bears. The bears, in fact, did not seem to be threatened, but in his mind, they were as he became increasingly suspicious of the Park Service and fearful of poachers.

Werner Herzog (and Treadwell) has done a great thing here, and I think no one but Herzog could have done it so well. This is a rich, complex film, and I loved it, was greatly moved, and hope that you see it on the big screen. It will be much diminished on video, in every way. Just opened at the Embarcadero and seems to be drawing well.

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