Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Grisly Man?

I finally saw Grizzly Man a week or two ago. I was really excited to see it, and I'm not ashamed to admit that part of the reason I wanted to see it in the first place was precisely because Timothy Treadwell, the "star" of the documentary, was killed and eaten by grizzly bears (hence the film). Um, that's not actually shown, BTW, and if it were it would not be something I'd want to see.

But there is an audio tape of Treadwell and girlfriend being eaten. That's not played for us, either, but filmmaker Werner Herzog - in a scene that I feel should go down in cinematic history as one of the Top Ten Most Gratuituous Uses of Violence in Film, even though we don't actually hear or see the violence - films himself listening to the tape on headphones while sitting next to the dear friend of the departed Treadwell (and girlfriend, whose name I can't remember). Herzog speaks aloud, deadpan, some of what he's hearing on the tape: "Run away. Go." Which is Treadwell trying to save his girlfriend by encouraging her to leave him and get the hell away from the attacking bears. And then Herzog, with a pained expression, says "stop the tape." And tells the friend, who is crying, that she must never listen to the tape and that she should destroy it.

What got me about this scene was not so much what we, the audience, imagined was happening on the tape. It was clearly horrific, and I'm glad Herzog decided not to share it with us. But he very cleverly staged that scene precisely so that we would imagine what was happening, so that even as he is determining that it is too gruesome to ever be heard, he is, in effect, sharing it with us, and manipulating the deaths of two people, the grief of their friend, and the horror of the audience. In this way, he gets to be the hero while acting like the villain.

Aside from the implied violence of this scene and a couple of others, what really fascinated me about this movie was that, if I had to choose between taking my chances with the people he interviews and the grizzly bears, I'd almost rather pick the bears. Treadwell himself was, I don't think it's going too far to say, an extremist. He cared about the bears, he spent thirteen summers protecting them (I never quite got exactly how, but he was living with them and filming all the time, and I know he believed he was protecting them from poachers). Herzog does go out of his way to make Treadwell look like he's lost touch with reality, but to be fair, Treadwell's own footage of himself kind of makes that argument all by itself. When we see him on screen, we see a passionate man, but one who is also very fragile and kind of on the edge.

Herzog also gives screen time to Treadwell's family and friends, as well as to those who found the bodies. There is one really crazy-ass coroner, who gleefully describes details like the tooth marks found on Treadwell's skull, which prompted a loud, "What the FUCK?!" from me.

I did learn some interesting things about bears, though. I was amazed to see Treadwell PETTING grizzly cubs and not being mauled. He seemed to know, like Dian Fossey did, exactly how to communicate through body language so that the animals would not harm him. And I did a little research, as well, which lead me to realize that grizzlies get a bad rap. I had sort of put them in the same "bear category" in which I put polar bears - sort of like, they see you, they will kill and eat you. But in fact, this is not true. They are far less aggressive than that. And it's worth pointing out that 1) Treadwell survived for 13 summers living with them, and 2) the "experts" believe that the bears that killed the couple were not the same bears he'd been with for all of that time, but "rogue bears" who were just nasty to begin with.

Overall, I think we're supposed to come away from the film feeling that the bears are a menace that Treadwell was too far gone to recognize. But what I came away with, instead, was a profound sense that Herzog and the crazy coroner were disturbingly similar in depicting this tragedy.

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