Grizzly Man: A Longing for Eden
In the last decades, there has been a romanticization of nature and man’s place within it, particularly his relationship with animals. Some have pointed to the rise of vegetarianism as a cause; others have suggested that the anthropomorphism of Disney and other moviemakers has caused a whole generation to believe that, in some way, just like Dr. Doolittle, they can ‘talk’ to the animals. Such sentimentalism starts to look as brittle and meaningless as Christmas tinsel in summer after watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary film, Grizzly Man.
Herzog is an unusual director in that his documentaries have attracted as much praise as his already much-acclaimed feature film oeuvre. His first major international success was in 1976 with Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Thereafter there followed such notable films as Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), Woyzeck (1979), and Fitzcarraldo (1982). From the start, Herzog had an interest in the odd, the bizarre, those on the margins of the mainstream and his documentary work has dealt with similar offbeat characters and themes.
Nowhere do these themes play more tragically than in the life of Timothy Treadwell, the doomed subject of Grizzly Man.
At first, we are introduced to Treadwell as a man who has bridged the gulf between human beings and the other species with which we share this planet, in particular, grizzly bears. For many years he spent the summer months in a remote part of Alaska, Katmai National Park and Preserve. There he camped beside the bears and interacted with them. He would give them names; he would talk to them; berate them; tell them he loved them. Each year, as winter came, he would return to the continental United States. There he would visit schools and show film of his time living in the wilds with the bears and telling of his experiences.
By the turn of this century, Treadwell was a celebrity, appearing in the media and on late-night television chat shows billed as the ‘grizzly man’. While doing so, and becoming a media ‘expert’ on bears, he thought of himself as their advocate. Speaking of the need to protect these animals, he would tirelessly point out the encroachments that man and his civilization were making upon the bears’ habitat and the rivers that provided their food. He talked as if he understood the bears, identified with them. He had, he suggested, fathomed why these creatures had a reputation for being dangerous to human beings: it was because of man’s lack of understanding of the true nature of a bear. Long since, he had eschewed the advice of the Alaskan authorities, namely to have nothing to do with the grizzlies. Increasingly, he felt safe with the bears. In hindsight, this was as mistaken as it was to prove fatal.
All Treadwell’s adventures in Alaska were documented: all taped via video recorder. In the end, there were many hours of film of Treadwell’s time with the bears, all filmed by him with a running commentary. During his winters away from Alaska, these films proved popular with the pupils at the schools he visited. Importantly, these films also seemed to validate what in essence he was saying to the children: it was possible for man and beast to live in harmony.
Herzog, however, uncovered a darker side to this filming than first appeared. There was a backstory to Treadwell that told of something other than his passion for bears and the wilderness they inhabit. There were times caught on film, even when Treadwell was in the wild, when he would emotionally start to crumble as the camera continued to roll. Sometimes his enthusiasm would turn to rage. At these moments, he would rail against hunters, State authorities, anyone whom he perceived as a threat to his continued contact with the bears. It was more than righteous anger. Even now, many years on, it looks like disturbed behavior coming from some deep psychological wound, one that Treadwell thought could be healed by his escape to the wilds and the animals that lived there.
Many have chased the American Dream, often ending up in Hollywood. Upon arrival there, however, most fail to make any impact. Such was the case with Treadwell. He drifted to California after a nondescript New York childhood, with the dream of ‘making it’ on the West Coast. For a dream to die is one thing; for it almost to succeed is another and perhaps a still harder thing to accept. ‘He almost made it’ are some of the saddest words in the English language. For Treadwell, these words were to be the verdict on his years in Hollywood. He missed out – and only just – on a part in a major television sitcom, Cheers!. Subsequently, the series was to prove a huge international success, propelling a number of actors to movie stardom. Treadwell’s knowledge that he had ‘almost made it’ nearly destroyed him. Eventually, leaving behind a haze of alcohol and drugs, he retreated into the natural world.
In the wilds of Alaska, he was far from human civilization. This is exactly how Treadwell wanted it. There is an oft-spoken sentiment that Treadwell repeats throughout the film, namely that he prefers bears to his fellow men. The more time he spent in the wilderness - and it was 13 summers in total - the harder he found it to come back to a world that he had begun to despise. By the end, this was to be his undoing and ultimately led to his untimely death.
After Treadwell’s death, Herzog was contacted about the footage left behind. With the eye of an experienced director, he began to piece together not just the footage but also the story it masked. Herzog set about interviewing those who had known Treadwell. The reactions he caught on camera were to be edited to supplement and to explain, to some extent at least, the dead man’s life caught on endless reels of film footage. The reactions from those who had known Treadwell were mixed. Some thought him an idealist, a conservationist, a pioneer of work with animals. Others were less sympathetic. They saw Treadwell as a dangerously foolhardy man who had trespassed in a world about which he knew little, bringing only a naive sentimentalism into the presence of an animal that needed close watching not befriending. Herzog wisely does not side with either camp in this debate. He lets the dead man’s friends and acquaintances talk to the camera; then he leaves us, the audience, to make up our minds about what was taking place both on and off camera.
It would be easy to suggest links between the radical ideology of today’s animal rights’ lobby and a tragically misguided figure like Treadwell. This would be simplistic. The personal demons that drove Treadwell to the fringes of society and that caused him to seek out animals instead of his fellow men were the real drivers in his life. Treadwell’s delusion was to believe that animals can somehow communicate in a meaningful and equal way with humanity and that humanity can, in turn, communicate in response. Treadwell appeared to believe that not only was such a communication possible but that it made the world a better place; it returned the universe to its original innocence. In his case, there was still more invested in his proposed communion with the bears, appearing as it did, or so he thought, to offer some sort of personal healing.
It is a worldview to which Rousseau would have subscribed: man as ‘noble savage’ at home in the natural world, with the natural world’s inhabitants his harmless companions; mankind unencumbered by limiting man-made philosophies and theologies. It is a vision of Eden restored, a secular version of it. In reality, and horrifically so in Treadwell’s case, this proved not to be the case. On his last trip to Alaska in 2003, at the end of his summer sojourn, more intensely than ever Treadwell did not wish to return south to California. So, he stayed on. It was a time of year when there were older and hungrier bears around than those he had known previously. In a ferocious attack by one of the grizzlies, the sounds of which were caught on a camera that was running throughout, Treadwell was eaten alive.
A drifter in the American Dream before becoming a misfit on account of it, Treadwell had sought refuge in an alien environment. Given the harrowing end to which he succumbed, it is hard to know what to make of Treadwell as depicted in Grizzly Man. What is clear, however, is that the human and animal worlds are distinct, and relations between them are as much affected by Original Sin as all else in the universe. Furthermore, no amount of wishful thinking, no matter how well intentioned or deluded, is going to change this. When all is said and done, there has never been a promise of a new Eden, but, instead, the healing of a primeval wound and, with that, a world made anew.