Sunday, June 14, 2009

Grizzly Man

Dir. Werner Herzog

There is a thin line between obstinately living out adolescent and childhood fantasies far into adult life and being on the brink of mental illness. Children do not draw distinct lines between reality and fantasy. Instead they allow permeability between the two worlds causing them to coalesce to form something fantastic and surreal. With children this lifestyle of illusion is acceptable if not encouraged. There is an unspoken assumption that the child will eventually “grow up” and develop a sense of reasoning that will allow them to distinguish between their fantasies and the real world. This reasoning permits adults to make sacrifices and cope with tragedies; mentally overcoming cognizance of strife and pain. It also deepens relationships. The film Grizzly Man (dir. Werner Herzog) is a documentary on Timothy Treadwell, a young man who spent 13 summers living amongst wild grizzly bears in Katami National Park and Reserve in Alaska. It shows the tragic disintegration of Treadwell's ability to function in society and his death by the animals he has sworn to protect. While not without significant psychology of its own, the film's ultimate undoing is Herzog's insistence on the magic of Treadwell's life and work, eschewing a cause and effect line of reasoning for an abstracted interpretation that leans closer to child-like innocence than debilitating mental disorder.

Grizzly Man's 100 minutes are made up in part from distilled hours of Treadwell's stock documentary footage that he shot over his 13 summers in Alaska amongst the bears. Herzog expertly picks and chooses certain scenes of chaos and reflection to enhance his own overtly romantic narration. The serenity of the Alaskan landscape is juxtaposed with Treadwell's wildly oscillating personality. Much of the time he spends raving like an idiot about his duty as a protector or knight or spirit of the bears and their habitat. At times he becomes so caught up in his own specious delusions that the viewer watches him literally unhinge to the point of violence. Treadwell exhibits no sense of self control and his views are disorienting and often terrifying. His very presence on the reserve is in fact illegal, and his relationship with its native bear species is at the very least amoral.

Throughout the film Treadwell constantly claims to “love these animals” but his actions speak to a much larger sense of delusion. During a particularly uncomfortable series of scenes in which a terrible drought has struck the area Treadwell finds himself cursing God and attempting to intervene on behalf of the Higher Power. He builds a makeshift route for the local fish population to traverse in order to move upstream to spawn; thus providing the bears with a much needed source of nourishment. It is in this moment that Treadwell's self assumed position as philanthropist of nature reveals itself as sophism incarnate. Treadwell suffers because of the bears, not for them. He lives vicariously through them, while simultaneously deconstructing their very existence in order to make it more hospitable to his fragile psyche. Treadwell, so disenchanted by his time spent amongst the vicious human population, is incapable of viewing his actions objectively. He supersedes on behalf of experienced (but potentially Fascist) wildlife experts and nature itself, striking out more as a disinformed enthusiast than a passive protector. Like so many pitiable romantics Treadwell would rather see nothing bad happen than accept the harshness and impassive cruelty of fate as dictated by the uninterrupted course of nature.

Though a naturally flawed character it is not this fact that keeps Grizzly Man from fully succeeding as a film. Herzog, like Treadwell, is manipulating a hapless population; not of ferocious, fur covered giants of the wild but rather the comparatively tame film audience. He massages a sense of mysticism into the pores of his documentary and his objective is in many ways identical to Treadwell's. He is here to convince the viewer of his good intentions. Rather than utilize a sense of detachment that would have given a fair portrayal of Timothy Treadwell and his exploits amongst the bears, he coerces the viewer into the unmistakable realm of pity and awe. It is not wrong to have an objective, just like it is certainly not wrong to want to assist an animal population that is being threatened by both natural and unnatural antagonists. In fact most documentary's contain within their midst an unspoken (or sometimes fully declared) intention. However, Herzog himself intercedes throughout the film to guide it, just as Treadwell intercedes to “help” the bears. While listening over the sound byte of Treadwell's death Herzog, who is never so much seen on camera as he is felt, an invisible presence just beyond the lens like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, becomes overwhelmed by the sound of Treadwell being mauled by the creatures he loves. To the woman he is interviewing, a former girlfriend of Treadwell's, he tells “I don't think you should ever listen to this.” Herzog, in his blind ambition to show only the altruistic traits of a man whose internal psychology was so terribly confused and damaged, has reduced a fascinating character study to a two dimensional rendering. Though the cinematography displays an aged an adept understanding of provocative and sublime visual stimuli, the narrative is all too eager to reveal an infantile grasp of the ways in which people interact with each other and with nature.

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