Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. Our focus this week is Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the strange life and extremely predictable death of Timothy Treadwell.
Fittingly, due to technical difficulties this post is a day late. Enjoy!
Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man came out during the summer of 2005, while I was in the throes of an obsession with movies, watching 100-150 new movies every year between 2002 and 2012. I don’t know why I became so obsessed with movies, spending my weekends at a movie theater stringing together multiple movies for the price of one (my record was five). But most of my free time between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five was spent watching, thinking about, or writing about movies. Obsession is the only word for it.
But because that September was my first month of college, a college in rural New York, my access to independent movies was limited. When Grizzly Man failed to receive an Oscar nomination (Herzog wouldn’t receive his first nomination until 2009), it slipped through the cracks, and I never got around to seeing it.
I wonder, fourteen years later, what I would have thought of Grizzly Man. It is, fittingly, a movie about obsession. Most of Herzog’s documentaries are about extreme situations: a death row inmate; a prisoner of war; the oldest known cave paintings; the Kuwaiti oil fields. Grizzly Man is about one man’s extreme choices and their deadly consequences. Herzog does not bury the lede, with the opening shot noting that the film’s subject, Timothy Treadwell, died in 2003 at the age of forty-six. If you couldn’t guess the cause of death, Herzog tells you a few minutes later.
Treadwell defined himself by his obsessions and was haunted by his failures. He went to college on a diving scholarship before an injury cut his athletic aspirations short. He moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor, where he allegedly just barely lost out on the role of the bartender on Cheers to Woody Harrelson. Meanwhile, he was in the grips of alcoholism, itself a form of obsession, an inability to moderate.
What rescued Treadwell from his addiction to alcohol? According to him, it was the bears. Bears became his new obsession, protecting them from poachers and educating the public about them. For thirteen years he spent every summer living among the bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska, recording himself and his interactions with the local wildlife.
Stories about obsession have always captured audiences. Whether it is fictional characters like Captain Ahab and Jay Gatsby, or biopics of mad geniusnesses like Mozart or Steve Jobs, these are stories of (usually, but not always) men who will stop at nothing to achieve greatness. Sometimes they succeed and change the world, and sometimes their obsession destroys them. When it comes to real stories, the successes grossly outweigh the failures. People who failed to achieve greatness tend not to go down in history.
While I was watching Grizzly Man, I thought about another documentary I watched recently about a man spending years in a national park pursuing a goal that many feared would kill him. The difference is that while Timothy Treadwell failed to survive among the bears of Katmai National Park, Alex Honnold succeeded in summiting Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan without assistance or protection. The documentary made about his endeavor, Free Solo, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
It is easy to laugh at Timothy Treadwell and his obsession. He looks like Prince Valiant cosplaying Neo and displays an absurd collection of mannerisms and affectations that make him feel like a Christopher Guest character (the whole film feels like a Guest project, the Alaskans interviewed coming off as just as awkward and absurd as Best in Show’s dog handlers and Waiting for Guffman’s midwest thespians). But mostly, it is easy to laugh at the idea that a man could think that he could live in harmony with a group of thousand-pound brown bears, especially with the film’s hindsight of his seemingly inevitable fate at one of their hands. Timothy Treadwell is a modern-day Don Quijote, and the bears of Katmai, all of whom he names , are both his Dulcinea and his windmills. He sees more in them than any sane person could.
But while Treadwell comes off as naive, he was not stupid. For thirteen summers he lived among bears, often within arms reach of them. True, you can only play Russian Roulette so many times before your bullet comes up, but his methods of interacting with the bears was inarguably effective. Like John Laroche in Susan Orleans’ The Orchid Thief, Treadwell is an autodidact who immersed himself completely into his field and became an expert. Treadwell wrote a book about his experiences, presented at schools, and received national attention for his exploits.
Yet the gaps in his knowledge are glaring. As one actual expert points out, acclimating wild animals to humans is dangerous. They no longer see humans as threats, making them easier targets for poachers. In addition, Treadwell’s horror at seeing the bodies of animals killed for food reveals his startlingly idealized view of nature as placid and edenic. What elevates Grizzly Man beyond a typical nature documentary or biodoc is that its subject shot hundreds of hours of footage of himself, and because of his death, it is all available to Herzog to use however he sees fit. Herzog uses this freedom to fixate on Treadwell’s contradictions, trying to understand what drives him.
One thing that becomes clear is that Treadwell is desperate for attention and validation for his work. We see him shoot footage intended to come off as spontaneous, but that is planned and rehearsed, often shot over a series of more than a dozen takes. When he brings a companion with him (his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, was killed along with him), the footage is judiciously shot to make it look like he is alone. Despite not profiting off his work, he is always deeply concerned with bolstering his reputation and mythos as the defender of the grizzly bears. It is not surprising that the former actor is constantly performing for the camera, but the lengths to which Treadwell goes to create a persona are fascinating, and Herzog dives deep into his loneliness, his devotion to the bears, and his ready acceptance of the fact that his goal would likely lead to his death. He wasn’t wrong.
In his review of Grizzly Man, Roger Ebert wrote that Treadwell “deserves Werner Herzog.” I don’t know if he means it as a compliment, or if Treadwell would have taken it as one. But because of what Treadwell left behind, Herzog was able to assemble the best tribute possible to a man who defined himself by his obsessions. Grizzly Man is, above all else, honest about its subject, his flaws, his ambitions to and delusions of grandeur. Any of us who have been consumed by obsession, driven to accomplish goals that seem impossible, will see themselves in Treadwell. What more could we aspire to than to deserve Werner Herzog?
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