When I was about ten years old, my sister and I were spending a weekend at my father’s parents’ farm in eastern Kansas. We were sitting out on the porch when a large black dog charged out of the woods about a hundred yards away. My sister and I were excited, because we had never seen a pet dog so big, but my grandfather saw something in its gait or its face right away that scared him as much as I’d ever seen. He called everyone into the house while he got his .22 rifle. He fired once at the ground, causing a ricochet that put a tiny, neat hole in the windshield of his Oldsmobile, which remained unfixed until after his death several years later. The sound of a .22 is not too impressive, so he had to fire a second shot into the air to drive it off.
We never found out what happened to the dog. My grandfather thought it might be one of the neighbors’ dogs gone rabid – though it was not foaming at the mouth – so we called the sheriff about it, but no news ever came. We never even found out if it was one of the neighbors’ dogs. The only lesson I ever learned from that day was, you can’t prejudge the dog. You can make a pet of it, but until it comes to heel you can’t assume that it’s your pet. Not unless you want to get bit. I immediately remember that day whenever I see Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.
There are no spoilers here, because it’s explained in the first 15 minutes of the movie: Timothy Treadwell was an animal activist who traveled to Alaska every summer for thirteen years, to live among the grizzly bears and film himself while doing so. Near the end of his 2003 trip, he and a female companion were mauled to death and partially eaten by one such bear. Herzog devotes the remainder of his movie to Treadwell’s surviving footage: what it may have said about Treadwell, and nature, and filmmaking itself.
A great many viewers will find Treadwell a difficult man to like. His cutesy attitude with the animals around him, treating them like pets or young children, seems disrespectful and foolhardy. One is likely to think many times during this film that he was practically begging to get mauled (Herzog samples some of Treadwell’s hate mail on camera, which says much the same thing). Worse, he lapses into self-aggrandizement often, talking about how tough he is to be living amongst the bears and how important his work is.
However, as I said after the film, anybody who watches the film and comes away with the thought “Tim Treadwell was a moron” is doing it wrong. Treadwell is a damaged person, despite his seemingly idyllic childhood, and there’s no shame in his trying to find a place to belong. The problem is that he thinks he belongs with the bears for all the wrong reasons.
Treadwell claims to be “studying” the bears, but he has no scientific method and no one would ever confuse him with Dian Fossey.* He claims to be “protecting” the bears, but they’re already on federally protected land and he captures nothing on camera that even remotely looks like poaching.** In reality, Treadwell is doing this for himself, which Herzog emphasizes perfectly by using Treadwell’s profane tirade against the U.S. Park Service. The park rules exist specifically to keep people like Treadwell from being eaten by bears, but Treadwell claims that the rules are there to persecute him and exults in the idea that “I beat you!” by breaking them.
Treadwell is filling some emptiness within himself by being with the bears. We can see it every time that Treadwell says “I love you” to one of the animals, or every time he awkwardly expounds upon his bad luck with women. But he seems to expect that there is some kind of justice or order to be found in the natural world, and Herzog understands that there is none. Where Treadwell sees horror and evil in the fact that starving bears eat their own young, Herzog sees only, in his own magnificent turn of phrase, “the bored indifference of hunger.”
My favorite moment in the film is when Treadwell films a bear diving underwater again and again, leaving just one paw sticking into the air. It’s a moment which appears almost tailor-made to get the audience to smile and say awwwwwww, and it definitely seems that’s why Treadwell filmed it. But then Herzog, in his inimitable German accent, informs us that the bear is desperate and hungry, diving to the bottom of the river for the barest salmon carcasses. Had Treadwell the training to know that the only bears not hibernating at that time of year were the desperate and hungry ones, he and his companion might have lived.
More than that: the bear which ate Treadwell, which had to be put down in order to retrieve the evidence, would have lived too. In trying to live with the bears from a position of love, Treadwell survived for some time and captured some beautiful footage, but eventually his ignorance and lack of respect for the animals led to failure. His is a tragic, sad tale, and there are few better to tell it than Herzog.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The primate researcher played by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, for which Weaver was nominated for an Oscar.
**Although he does get video of some moron throwing rocks at the bears. If you suggested that guy deserved to get mauled long before Treadwell did, I wouldn’t argue.