"grizzly man" was the second film i watched over the christmas holiday that included a troubling, tragic death of its protagonist! "vagabond (sans toit ni loi)" was a gripping account a middle class girl's descent into self-imposed homelessness and vagrancy. "grizzly man" was an equally gripping account of a idealistic kid (albeit in his 40's) - with no self-proclaimed death wish - who spent 13 summers living in the alaskan wilderness looking after grizzly bears! while "vagabond" was fiction, "grizzly man" was a documentary - culled together from over 100 hours of film taken by timothy treadwell during his seasons with the grizzlies.
the documentary was assembled by none other than werner herzog - who, to his credit, did not create a haliographic portrait of timothy treadwell in the process. "grizzly man" is in stark contrast to another filmmaker's take on yet another, decade earlier, tragic death in the alaskan wilderness. sean penn's docudrama "into the wild" recounted the tragic end of chris mccandless. while penn's "into the wild" was a fantastic ("must see") film, it was utterly one-sided in presenting mccandless and his "idealism" without criticism. in sharp contrast, herzog made no secret of his scepticism.
despite (or maybe because of) herzog's "non-approval" the "grizzly man" is an incredible film to watch. it is devoid of almost any sentimentality with respect to treadwell or the grizzlies. the story is presented in a stark, matter of fact, exposition. treadwell is shown outside alaska interacting with everyday people, in everyday (common) activities. and he is shown in his preferred element - the alaskan wilderness - interacting with "his" beloved grizzlies. his behavior in those clips is practically manic - over the top pledges that he's willing to die to protect his precious grizzlies!
i never doubted treadwell's sincerity, but i often found myself wondering about his hold on sanity. there is one key point, mid-way through the film, where he's shown as a guest on the david letterman show. to letterman's prescient credit, he asked treadwell the question that each of us was thinking: "is it going to happen that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?" despite the audience laughter, we know the answer. even more tragically, it wasn't just treadwell's death that we read about - but of his girlfriend as well (she had spent the last two seasons in alaska with him).
the most jarring moment of the entire documentary - and it brought home the sheer sadness of the aftermath - is herzog with jewel palvok (of "grizzly people," the organization treadwell founded) and the audio of treadwell's last moments alive. the lens was covered, but the camera recorded the audio of the gruesome deaths. herzog listened to the attack on headphones - and did not play the audio clip for the documentary. after listening in her presence, herzog told palvok (who had never played it) "you must never listen to this. you should not keep this. you should destroy it because it will be like the white elephant in your room all your life."
what we would have heard was treadwell screaming to his girlfriend to run away - and her futile efforts to fight off the grizzly with a frying pan. treadwell, hours before his death, had filmed the bear that would soon kill him. it was a surly, unfriendly, creature - but as a park ranger unceremoniously pointed out, treadwell treated the grizzlies like people in bear costumes, not like the wild animals they really are. herzog also emphasized the empty stare of these grizzlies - and refused to humanize them. whether treadwell realized this - and ignored it - is open to question because he was certainly aware of the danger they posed.
it's a sobering film and worth watching. don't pass it up!
off on a tangent: i would have been fascinated to see what herzog's take on chris maccandless story would have been like. the parallels between treadwell and mccandless are many - despite the big difference in age. a glimpse at the outcome may be "the call of the wild" - the "other," more impartial view of chris mccandless and his saga.