Grizzly Man (2005)
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
I first saw this film on its release, mainly because the trailer seemed so kooky and odd; and, sure enough, when I actually watched it I fell about laughing—mainly due to the grim German-accented narration by the film’s director, Werner Herzog. I was quite moved as well, for this is by no means a funny film; and, over the years, as I have watched it again and again I have come to find it less and less funny and more and more a statement about a particular type of man. I was twenty-one when I first watched this film, so I had not seen so much of life then; and the antics displayed by Timothy Treadwell, the film’s main protagonist, seemed mainly funny and, perhaps, idiotic—now his actions represent a definite character, and a rather shallow character at that.
Grizzly Man was put together from footage gifted to Herzog, a very established German director known for his extreme and artistic films: he reputedly once directed Klaus Kinski—his favourite, though extremely temperamental, actor—with a rifle pointed at Kinski’s head from behind a camera. Lore surrounds Herzog, not least the fact that during a BBC interview to promote Grizzly Man he was shot in the leg in the middle of LA for no apparent reason. When the interviewer suggested he go to the hospital Herzog replied, “It is not a significant bullet,” and continued the interview. While never a box office favourite, Herzog is truly a filmic artist: he delivers his dreams—he appeared in a documentary called The Burden of Dreams—and makes these reality, often at a terrific price to his own health and well-being; not to mention the health and well-being of those around him.
Grizzly Man was somewhat different to Herzog’s other films because the footage within it—for the most part, interviews aside—was not filmed by Herzog. The footage belonged to Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled “protecter of the grizzly bears” who spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness in extremely close contact with the bears; often Treadwell was literally nose-to-nose with the bears. His final summer, in 2003, was his last: he and his girlfriend were eaten by a grizzly that was subsequently shot. What remained was his footage from his years in the wilderness; and so Herzog was selected to edit this into a film that told Treadwell’s story.
Now Herzog and Treadwell are about as different men as it is possible to be in their relation to nature—although there are other similarities. Treadwell moved from Long Island to LA where he tried to become an actor; he tried out to be the barman in Cheers—a series that was to become a gigantic hit in its day—but despite being close to selection Treadwell was rejected. This led him into despair—into drink and drugs and bit work as a waiter at an olde English theme restaurant; probably a path trod by many aspiring boys and gals who pitch up in LA and find that stardust quickly turns to ashes. Treadwell’s salvation was his self-reinvention as a professional bear protecter. This became his mission in life; each summer he headed up north—usually completely alone—to live with the grizzlies.
Back home, he lectured to school children—for free—about the bears and their habitat. He gained a certain national renown on talk shows for his close contact with the bears; and the general opinion was that he was crazy—he refused to bring a gun or even anti-bear spray with him. Treadwell was, in short, an example of the most typical hippy-dippy “the universe is harmony and love” outlook you could hope to find; he was a complete Hollywood stereotype—a “peaceful warrior” who thought he had a special connection with the bears. Accordingly, the locals—and many other realistic Americans—thought he was a liberal nutjob with ridiculously unrealistic views who deserved to be eaten.
Herzog does not share Treadwell’s blissful outlook towards nature. Whereas Treadwell coos at his bears, Herzog states in his vaguely sinister German-accented English: “I see only boredom and a vague interest in food in the bear’s eyes.” Herzog once filmed extensively in the remote parts of the Amazon and viewed the jungle, a jungle many people would see as an Eden and completely beautiful, as “collective murder” and “chaos”. In Grizzly Man he summarises his view as: “I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” Treadwell, for his part, gave “his” bears sentimental names, such as “Mr. Chocolate” and “Tabitha”—he saw them again and again, often from cubhood and so came to believe he had an intimate relationship with them, a human relationship really. He even carried a little stuffed bear toy into his tent during his expeditions, despite being well into his forties; for Treadwell, the bears were more Disney characters than wild beasts.
Although Herzog sees nature as brutal and indifferent to man’s aspirations, he does not—unlike some of Treadwell’s detractors, who may have never gone into nature themselves—mock or condemn Treadwell. He disagrees with Treadwell’s stance and thinks that Treadwell was wrong, but he acknowledges—with a typically inhuman eye—that despite his naïvety, quite possibly because of it, Treadwell brought back extraordinary images from the wilderness. Treadwell will set up a shot where he talks to camera before a bear, but suddenly a fox he knows will amble past with her cubs following shortly behind. Herzog acknowledges that there is a unplanned magic to these shots, shots that could never be captured by a typical Hollywood union crew. For Herzog, the controversy over Treadwell’s life fades away and what remains are his images; and the images are beautiful and unique.
On more mature reflection, there is an irony to the images Treadwell captures. The beautiful images he finds are picked out and highlighted by Herzog in the editing suite; so, for example, Herzog highlights the swaying grass after Treadwell has delivered a monologue and left the shot. Treadwell’s footage is mostly about Treadwell playing the role “Treadwell, bear defender”; and in this role he is just a typical Hollywood airhead, filled with grandiose notions that he defends the bears from predation by poachers and that he and he alone has a special relationship with the bears. It is all a phoney act; and what Treadwell is really interested in when he uses his camera is the image he wishes to present to the world, not the Alaskan wilderness or even the bears—it is all about the image Timmy wants to present, not about the beautiful images Herzog picks out from the footage.
Everything about Treadwell was fake, even his name. His real name was Timothy Dexter, but he changed it when he decided to start his Hollywood career. There is a certain significance in this change: “Dexter” means “right” in Latin, and it literally carries connotations of righteousness in the moral sense—“sinister” comes from the left, “sinistra”. When he changed his name, Treadwell abandoned the path of righteousness; he turned his back on his solid middle-class home, his father being a decidedly non-narcissistic worker on power lines. Although he called himself “Treadwell”, presumably in an attempt to cultivate an outdoorsman image, he was about to “tread badly”—eventually getting himself and his girlfriend killed; not to mention endangering the bears, since he habituated them to human contact and so made them more vulnerable to poachers. The general consensus, from the Indians to the park rangers to random locals, was that the bears were basically safe—there was no poaching threat—and they just needed to be left alone and respected.
What really happened was that Treadwell moved to LA and failed in his acting aspirations. Back East, he had been an all-American boy; a blond-haired B-student with a swimming scholarship and a Prince Valiant haircut—he sort of sounds like a hero with a righteous name, the right-handed name; and, perhaps, true leading-man material. When he injured his back and lost his swimming scholarship he flirted with pot—“I put the kibosh on that,” notes his father, sternly—and then headed West to be a film star. It all went wrong and he ended up deep in drink, drugs, and despair. After a near-death experience with drugs, he reinvented himself as an Australian orphan with an unbelievable accent; his friends—even those who had known him before—pretended to believe him. In the end, Treadwell settled on a narrative that brought him peace, of a sort: he was a defender of the bears, their last hope against man’s cruelty. It was all a narrative he invented in his head; he starred in his self-created TV show, but eventually reality intruded and ate him.
Treadwell’s monologues to camera run from sentimental delusion to towering rage, sparked when other people challenge his narcissistic delusions. A strong self-destructive streak runs through the entire film, when combined with his overdose it eventually became apparent to me that this man probably wanted to die. He would, for example, camp deep in what was known as the “Grizzly Maze”; a tangled network of bushes where a bear could easily be surprised—and a surprised bear attacks. It was here he and his girlfriend were eventually eaten. This was a man who was starved of reality, completely walled off in his delusions and images and fundamentally empty; to escape the emptiness he sought death, eventually he found it—albeit in a rather circuitous way.
Although a physically strong man, there is something fey about Treadwell and a question mark over his sexuality hangs subtly about the film. At one point, Herzog splices home-movie footage into the action: a teenage Treadwell goes about his summer or weekend job moving flowers around—above him hangs a large sign that reads, “Pansy”. The shot zooms out to reveal he is at work on a “Pansy Farm”, a garden centre. There are two levels of commentary here: at the meta-level, Herzog included the footage as a nod to Treadwell’s ambiguous sexuality; at the footage level, whoever made the home movie (dad?) alluded to Treadwell’s sexuality in a subtle way. Treadwell had many girlfriends—though not the most attractive—and yet in his confessions to camera he doubts his sexuality; he admits that he is too nice and wonders if girls actually dislike nice men...
Treadwell confesses that he wishes he were homosexual because their life is easier; surely many straight men have thought this too: the straightforward glance at a photograph and then a meeting for sex and…job done. Everything is straightforward with men, even bent men are straightforward. Treadwell was the type to be found at post-school drama club; he was fey, a little bit like Justin Trudeau—it was difficult to call him a man, even when he went toe-to-toe with a grizzly bear. I doubt he was homosexual; but he was very close to his mother—they were bonded by a love for animals. So Treadwell falls more into the category puer aeternus; he was Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. He lived like a woman, enmeshed in self-serving fantasies; now, some people can make a living from self-serving fantasies—and that is why they go to Hollywood. But Treadwell failed in that aspiration; in the end, his self-serving fantasy took him to Alaska and death. As with all boys, there was something sexually ambiguous about him; but this was not because he was homosexual—it was because he had never grown up, he was neither sex; if born a little later, it is not hard to imagine Treadwell as a transsexual. By changing his paternal name—his father’s voice grates at this when he relates it in the film—Treadwell unambiguously rejected his masculine side; his righteous side.
I think Herzog is aware that he is very close to Treadwell in many ways; the line between genius and madness is said to be very thin and I would add that the line between genuine art and self-indulgent narcissism is also very thin. So, for example, Herzog also renamed himself; he was born “Stipetic” and, in fact, “Herzog” means “duke” in German—so he also selected a self-aggrandising name under which to become a famous filmmaker. As with Treadwell, Herzog takes extreme risks; he dragged an entire boat over a hill in the middle of the Amazon rainforest for one film—braving hostile Indians, snakes, and physical deprivation. He constantly throws himself into very extreme scenarios, whether in Africa or Antarctica. What separates Herzog’s extremism from Treadwell’s narcissism is that Herzog works from the inner to the outer rather than from the outer to the inner. Herzog has his dreams—the burden of dreams—and he struggles to bring these dreams to reality on the screen. Treadwell had an image in mind that he wished other people to buy into—Timothy Treadwell, bear defender—and then tried to force reality to conform to the image; in the end, reality, in the form of a bear, did not comply.
So Herzog retains realism at all times, even as he attempts to merge his dreams with reality. When he stands in the lush rainforest he sees “murder” where others would see beauty; perhaps Herzog lays it on a bit thick for effect, but he is more right than not: the rainforest is filled with parasites, snakes, rot, and decay—it is a fatal environment. The difference between Herzog and Treadwell is between actor and director; Treadwell was akin to Herzog’s favourite actor, Klaus Kinski, whose narcissistic rages were legendary. Kinski was a man who had a stage show where he played Jesus Christ—narcissism, much?—and, naturally, he fully inhabited the role. There is a clip from this show that shows Kinski raging at an audience member who has questioned his portrayal of Christ; it is a truly terrifying demonstration of genuine narcissistic rage. “Did you not know,” rages Kinski, “that Christ came with a whip? He didn’t come to love you.” In his artistic rage, Kinski hits on a truth; the milksop Christ so beloved by liberals is not the whole story—Christ did come with a whip, especially for the moneylenders in the Temple; and so, to a degree, his narcissistic rage is artistically redeemed in the way it reveals what people have forgotten about Christ. Treadwell indulges in similar theatrics as regards the Park Service and other people who oppose his relations with the bears—relations that broke all the rules other people had to abide by. Yet with Treadwell there is less redemption; he concealed what the bears were like when he gave sentimental presentations about them to children.
Treadwell and Kinski were actors; for them image and perceived image were everything. Herzog, as a director, has his image—Herzog, the duke—but he controls his mask; his mask does not control him. Actually, for a long time directors were not very important people in films; the screenwriters and actors were considered central—the director was more on par with the lighting man and camera operator. This changed in the 1950s and since then—especially with the French notion of the “auteur” (the autist?)—we have come to be familiar with the notion that there is a Hitchcock film, a Kubrick film, a Lynch film and, of course, a Herzog film; people appreciate directors in the same way they appreciate novelists and singers—although, as film digitises this seems to be changing; personally, I can no longer think of a contemporary “name” director.
Unlike other artists, the director emerges from a highly collaborative environment; he is the leader—possibly the dictator—in a large enterprise. Directors, such as Hitchcock, often start with practical, almost craftsman-like, positions; such as working with the lights or cameras. There is a strong “trades” element to the director; and the director must work with carpenters, sound engineers, light men, actors, screenwriters, producers (financiers)—and he must also negotiate with people outside his company to acquire sets and access. Accordingly, a director cannot be very narcissistic; he has to be a realist and he has to work with very many different people, negotiate with them—and with reality.
Directors are psychopaths, actors are narcissists. Hitchcock famously declared that he regarded actors as “cattle”; and we see here the autistic element in play, people treated as objects; the fascination with getting a shot right—perhaps repeating it seventeen or eighteen times as Kubrick did. Hence Herzog takes the colder view when it comes to bears—when it comes to humans—and uses masculine realism to bring dreams to fruition. Directors represent a technological extension of the conductor and composer; and it is no surprise that Herzog—as with his fellow German auteur, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg—has directed operas as well. We see in the director-composer an intimation as to an ideal political state: the state as a collaborative aesthetic enterprise—like an orchestra—that produces beautiful coordination to realise the director’s cold dreams through craftsman-like dedication to particular skills. It is this sensibility that means Herzog is not like Treadwell; Herzog is extreme, but he knows his masks and understands the risks he takes to realise his dreams—Treadwell fled his inner emptiness, half in the hope that he would die in his enterprise.
To return to Treadwell as Treadwell, this man—whatever his other deficiencies—spent thirteen summers living with and being in close contact with grizzly bears. This required bravery, even if reckless, and it is also an achievement. As an achievement, it tells us a few things: firstly, despite their reputation, grizzly bears are not very interested in human flesh—unless surprised or desperate, they really want salmon—and they will put up with a lot of exploratory pokes from man; secondly, I feel there was a way Treadwell approached the bears that was almost yogic, there is a general view in Eastern religions that if a man is very unselfconscious that he can speak and command even the fiercest animals; it seems Treadwell pretty much managed to achieve this in a perverted way—if you walk among wolves or jaguars and have lost all fear and live with supreme confidence then they will not eat you, but if you let the slightest consciousness as to danger intrude for a moment then you are done for; thirdly—and not unconnected to the latter point, for yogic individuals would say women are pollution—woman is man’s downfall; Treadwell was finally eaten when he took his girlfriend along for a prolonged visit with the bears, perhaps they smelled her menses or perhaps she just made him a bit too self-conscious and cautious whereas before he had walked with supreme confidence.
There are two points to take from Grizzly Man. In the first place, Herzog’s editorial observation that Treadwell—despite his detachment from reality—captured beautiful images remains true. To see the beauty you have to look beyond Treadwell and be inhuman yourself, just look—really look—at nature. The second point, revisiting this film long after twenty-one, is that Treadwell no longer appears as “some crazy American dude” to me; rather, I can see the emptiness in him and have a pretty good idea where it comes from and how it was cultivated. So I find the film a good deal less funny now, since I understand what lies behind Treadwell’s antics. Of course, the force that drove Treadwell—narcissism—seems to be more prevalent today than ever before; and that is to say that we are all, in very large numbers, playing up to the camera right next to dangerous animals and that at any moment reality may pierce the narrative and consume us.