Monday, November 21, 2005

Grizzly Man (Herzog, 2005)

For the subject of his most recent documentary, Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog examines the strange, abbreviated life of Timothy Treadwell, a man so out of step with normality that at first he seems like an inventive piece of fiction. Treadwell is a sort of environmentalist-commando, documenting with his camera the secret life of grizzly bears. Not content to observe the highly dangerous beasts from a distance, Treadwell prides himself on being able to live amongst the beasts, bravely (or foolishly, depending on who you ask) earning their acceptance. Treadwell talks enthusiastically about his subject with the same kind of wide-eyed passion that Richard Simmons might talk about exercise. Despite his proclaimed heterosexuality, Treadwell’s gentle, effeminate nature often earns nervous titters from the audience simply because it is such a stark contrast with the outrageous macho-man risks he takes. His favorite stunt is to turn on his camera and place himself in the foreground with an ultra-dangerous grizzly not too far behind him, talking joyfully as if he were in the company of an ordinary house cat. Yet, despite the film’s title, Treadwell is more likely to remind viewers of Mr. Rogers than he is of Grizzly Adams.

As a documentary filmmaker, Herzog is the ideal person to tackle this subject matter since in many ways he shares a deep affinity with Treadwell. In previous films, Herzog has immersed himself in the wilderness in order to capture images of great beauty and wonder that would be wholly inaccessible to those of us that rarely wonder outside the comfort of civilization. Likewise, Herzog has always had a fascination with animals, using them time and time again for their metaphoric quality: the monkeys of Aguirre, the rats of Nosferatu, the dancing chicken of Stroszek, the camel of Even Dwarfs Started Small. Surely, Herzog was also drawn to Treadwell for his tenuous grip on sanity, even going so far at one point in the film to observe that a profanity-laden outburst by the grizzly man reminds him of anger demonstrated by previous actors with which he has worked. The primary strength of Grizzly Man is the way in which Herzog rides the fine line between transforming Treadwell into a kind of cult hero and using his flamboyant nature to paint him as a fool. Grizzly Man functions as both an inspirational and a cautionary tale, as both Treadwell’s close friends and his detractors are given their due. Though it will likely annoy some who still hold onto an antiquated notion of the supposed objectivity of the documentary film, Herzog also offers his own analysis and opinions at key points of the film. These moments are handled with the utmost respect and discretion, even when the director offers his pointed disagreement with Treadwell’s basic romantic philosophy of life.

Grizzly Man is extraordinarily thought-provoking and endlessly entertaining. Best of all, it is also a film with a palpable sense of danger. Once again, Herzog (with a heavy assist from Treadwell) takes viewers into dark territory, acting as a kind of wise, weathered tour guide. By this, I not only refer to the places where grizzlies roam free, but also the mysterious regions of the human mind. Treadwell’s tale is not only fascinating – it is undeniably haunting. Too courageous to be written off as a mere fool, too reckless to be hailed as a true hero, he occupies an elusive middle ground, forcing us to examine our own lives and the way in which we pursue our most cherished dreams. Grizzly Man is most certainly one of the best films of the year and most likely one of the best of Herzog’s career. Considering his remarkable body of work, that’s saying something.



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