By Stephanie Zacharek
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By The Invisible Woman
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"I always cannot understand why girls don't wanna be with me for a long time," says Timothy Treadwell, subject of the documentary Grizzly Man. "I have really a nice personality -- I'm fun, I'm very very good in the...umm, well, you're not supposed to say that when you're a guy, but I know I am, they know I am, and I don't fight with them. I'm so passive, a bit of a patsy. Is that a turnoff to girls, to be a patsy?"
Depends on the girl, Tim. But let's analyze some other possibilities. You sound effeminate, you're scarily hyper sometimes, and -- oh, yeah -- you spend your free time hanging out in the wild with bears. A number of women are intimidated by large animals that kill people. In fact, Treadwell's last girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, expressed her fear of bears many times. Yet when one eventually did attack, in October 2003, she wouldn't leave her man behind. She was killed along with him.
German director Werner Herzog came across a documentary project on Treadwell already in progress and volunteered himself as director; in the process, as he says in voiceover narration, "I discovered a film of human ecstasy and darkest inner turmoils." Treadwell had filmed many of his expeditions into the Alaskan national parks to be with the bears, and there were more than 100 hours of footage to be viewed. While it initially seems like standard-issue nature-documentary stuff, Herzog plays movie critic with it and ends up analyzing the work the way a film-school professor might scrutinize Tarkovsky. Herzog, however, is more scintillating to listen to than your average lecturer, not least of all because of his German accent (which is not unlike the California Governator's Austrian version).
In life, Treadwell invoked extreme reactions in people, and he still does in death. Colleagues point to his work in schools showing his nature films to kids, and to his attempts to raise awareness of the plight of bears. Right-wing hate letters read aloud on camera call for all environmentalists of Treadwell's kind to be eaten by bears; others endorse a plan that would unleash bears on the students and faculty at Berkeley. A museum curator in Alaska opines, "It's tragic because, yeah, he died." Others speculate that by letting the bears get used to his presence, Treadwell may have done more harm than good, because bears need to be afraid of people for their own safety.
Herzog's not one to take an obvious or unambiguous stance on such a man. Instead he analyzes the composition of Treadwell's shots, the spontaneity or lack thereof, the self-mythologizing at work, and the conflict of director versus star -- though they are one and the same. Tales of Treadwell's past emerge, painting him in an objectively unflattering light: He had problems with the law, was an alcoholic, masqueraded as an Australian orphan to try to get attention, was diagnosed as bipolar but refused treatment, etc. Bears became his surrogate addiction, and he gave up alcohol as a "promise" to them.
If you've ever known someone who dotes on cats and anthropomorphizes them to a frightening degree, you'll recognize some of that in Treadwell; he gives all the wild bears names like "Mr. Chocolate," "The Grinch" and "Aunt Melissa." As Herzog notes, the man seems to be in denial about the fact that bears are predators, cannibals and occasionally sex fiends in a way that would put humans to shame: Adult males sometimes kill off cubs just so the mother will have to mate again. They're not even especially pragmatic in their violence: In the middle of a fight between two males, one takes a massive dump, then slips on it while fending off his enemy. (Contrary to popular belief, this particular bear does not shit in the woods.)
Treadwell isn't the only one whose documentary footage is subject to subtle manipulation. During an interview following Treadwell's death, the coroner who examined his remains really appears to be acting, with exaggerated facial expressions and grand hand gestures. Herzog eventually just leaves the camera running on him, so we get to see that once his act stops, the guy seems to freeze in position, as if waiting for the director to call "cut" before he'll break character.
Treadwell's quite a personality, and it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a Hollywood biopic, possibly with Owen Wilson in the lead. Herzog is primarily interested in Treadwell the filmmaker, but you're more likely to be fascinated with him as a human being.
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