You'll Eat up 'Grizzly Man'

Werner Herzog's documentary probes the sanity of bears' best friend.

By Steve Burgess 3 Oct 2005 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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When it comes to film directors, ya gotta dance with the one that brung ya. Grizzly Man, the frequently spellbinding documentary now playing at Tinseltown, was directed by Werner Herzog. For this gift the audience must be grateful-even though there may be times when you'll want to stuff a sock in Herzog's mouth. It's the price we pay for greatness.

Grizzly Man is the story of Tim Treadwell, a self-made grizzly expert who spent 13 years studying the huge animals in Alaska until his research hit a snag when one of his subjects ate him. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, a much more reluctant participant in the work, was also tragically killed in the same attack. Treadwell left behind plenty of video footage, which Herzog stitches together to paint a portrait of a bizarre, childlike, complicated man beset with a fatal case of sentimental delusion about one of nature's most powerful creatures.

The bears, Treadwell believed, were his pals. (So were the foxes, but he was on less dangerous ground there.) The opening segment, where Treadwell stands before the camera describing his relationship with the behemoths grazing behind him, would seem ridiculous and unbelievable if it were recreated word for word by an actor. By the end of the film, the scene no longer seems remarkable-we come to know that it is completely in tune with Treadwell's giddy, romantic, sad, yet self-aggrandizing worldview. He frequently tells the bears he loves them, and from a distance where such intimacy can be whispered.

Treadwell's footage of the bears is frequently incredible (a vicious mating battle is astonishing to see) and his knowledge of each individual bear is remarkable. But his belief that he and he alone were protecting the bears from harm -- in a wildlife preserve -- is dubious. Blurring the line between human and animal as he clearly wanted to do proved to be a disaster for both sides. And as Herzog gradually shows, Treadwell was a troubled young man whose obsessive embrace of the wilderness was the last refuge of a former drunk and failed actor who once tried to re-invent himself as an Australian. His increasingly paranoid delusions about enemies in the Parks Service are hilarious, until you remember how they ended.

Grizzly psychoanalysis

Grizzly Man is a tremendous accomplishment for Herzog, the German film director who gave us such dramatic epics as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (both about deluded crusaders in the wilderness). But the film's problems come from Herzog as well. He tends to overstay his welcome with secondary characters, lingering until the frustrated viewer longs, like Treadwell, to return to the wild. Shorter would definitely have been better.

And Herzog functions as his own narrator. (Apparently it is not a legal requirement for Morgan Freeman to narrate documentaries after all. Perhaps animals that outweigh penguins by over 500 pounds are exempt). The director's German accent and apparent need to inject his own chin-rubbing ruminations sometimes create the impression that the film is lying on a couch undergoing Freudian analysis.

In the end though, these are quibbles. Grizzly Man is a chronicle of a death foretold --foretold by its subject on the David Letterman show, among other places. Its true subject is not bears but the amazing variety of human drives, desires, and delusions, as embodied in one man. Take time out from the Film Fest rounds to take it in.

Steve Burgess writes on entertainment for The Tyee. He lives in Vancouver with Buddy, his pet Siberian tiger.  [Tyee]

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