(August 2005) Werner Herzog’s new documentary Grizzly Man is a modern-day horror film: you can’t look but you can’t look away. It’s an extreme story about Timothy Treadwell (born Timothy Dexter), a failed actor, former alcoholic, and ex-drug-abuser from the East coast who lost himself, or rather, found his purpose while spending thirteen summers among the bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. His purpose was presumably to “save and protect” the “endangered” grizzly bear, and to educate the public about the plight of the species.
During several of those summers, Treadwell, who is a cross in personality between Mr. Rogers and Andy Dick, taped 100 hours of footage of bears, foxes and other creatures. But far from conventional “nature” footage, his rambling narration often in baby-like talk reveals his efforts to anthropomorphizing all creatures great and greater. In the aftermath of a stunning grizzly bear stand off, for instance, Treadwell proclaims that “Sergeant Brown did a number two.”
Grizzly Man is the culmination of many of the themes that the renowned German-born filmmaker (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo) has explored in his prolific feature- and documentary-film career: a fascination with madness, the use of the natural environment as protagonist, and the questioning our fundamental relationship to the “nature”.
The real controversy and horror of this film is not merely that Treadwell is a misguided, well-intentioned spirit, but the fact that he is labeled—even by the film’s publicity material—as an “amateur grizzly bear expert and wildlife preservationist.” Amateur he may be, but his actually illegal practices of encroaching on bear territory and acclimating them to human interaction and contact fly in the face of his “intended” positive aims.
Elaine Charnov is Director of Public Programs, and Artistic/Co-Director of the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.