Bearly Gods: A Review of Grizzly Man

Originally Published
Sat Feb 18, 2006 at 12:00:00 PM EST

For thirteen seasons Timothy Treadwell lived among the brown grizzly bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park. And at the end of his thirteenth season, one of the bears ate him. It was ironic and gruesome, more gruesome because the bear also got his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, most gruesome because his ever-present video camera was there to record the audio as its owners were killed.

Treadwell had collected hundreds of hours of video in his quest to protect the grizzlies by raising public awareness of them. Two years after his death it fell to film director Werner Herzog to assemble Treadwell's last footage, not into the story of bears that Treadwell intended, but into the story of Treadwell himself: Grizzly Man. It is one of the most powerful and fascinating movies I have ever seen.

Grizzly Man opens on a shot of Timothy Treadwell delivering a long, rambling, loony narrative about being a "gentle warrior" as a grizzly bear snuffles in the background. This is typical of Herzog's technique; although he forthrightly disagrees with Treadwell's philosophy, he allows Treadwell himself to form the worst impressions of his own personality.

Over and over, from the opening monologue to the footage shot only hours before his death, Treadwell emphasizes and even seems to relish the danger of what he is doing. "If you slip up you'll get eaten," he warns us, "Yep, down the gullet you'll go." He warns us that he is breaking the rules; "You should camp in the open; my camp is hidden. This is the most dangerous kind of camping there is." Elsewhere he asserts, somewhat hyperbolically, that he is in more danger than anyone on the planet.

Treadwell made a reputation for himself by bringing his infectious enthusiasm to classrooms and auditoriums, and later to talk shows. He famously told David Letterman that grizzlies were "just big party animals." For the last five of his thirteen seasons he brought the video camera, and this is what attracted the attention of Werner Herzog. For whatever his failings might have been as a human being or bear expert, Treadwell captured video of astonishing power and beauty. Treadwell may be dead, but these images are his enduring legacy.

Leaving the World

Herzog goes into Treadwell's past, interviewing his parents and old friends, but until he met the bears he was maddeningly normal; there is nothing to indicate where this obsession might have arisen or why it had such power over him. He was a failed actor turned, by his own admission, to drink and drugs. Had things turned out a little differently the story of his life might have been another movie. But somehow he made his way to Katmai, found the bears, and determined that they needed a protector who wasn't "a messed-up person."

Whether the bears needed a protector is an open question; the park service says poaching is a minor problem at most and that the population is stable. Treadwell's supporters and the organization he founded, Grizzly People, disagree. But in his one encounter with actual human interlopers, Treadwell cowers in the bushes afraid to reveal himself. These humans are no hunters, but even as they throw rocks at one of his beloved bears to provoke it for their cameras Treadwell frets and videotapes but does not intervene. It seems that the protection Treadwell hopes to offer is more spiritual than physical. By blurring the line between the bear and human worlds Treadwell seems to hope that humans will, overall, be forced to pay more attention and take better care of the bears and their habitat.

But as he insinuated himself more and more into the world of the Katmai bears, Treadwell seemed to lose touch with the world of humans. At times Treadwell uses his camera the way some people use blogs, venting his feelings with a candor he would certainly have edited away if he had lived. In one rambling monologue he frets about his love life. "And I'm pretty good, well, you're not supposed to talk about that but I think I am," he sort of brags about his sexual prowess. "So why do I have such trouble with women?" (Uh, dude, do you think it might be the obsession with bears?) Elsewhere he delivers a blistering condemnation of the Park Service, and the individual employees that have worked with him over the years. Most eerily, although he is with his girlfriend he elaborately maintains the illusion that he is completely alone, even troubling to explain how it "hits you" as the plane flies off.

Gods Upon the Earth

Early in the movie a succession of interviewees opine that Treadwell's obsession with the bears was a form of religion. This certainly makes more sense than any other theory. Treadwell's mental model of the bear certainly doesn't have much to do with, well, bears. And this is where Herzog draws his sharpest and most poignant observations.

After showing us Treadwell's descent into the world of the bear—one interviewee says "he would woof at you"—Herzog tells us, "I have seen this madness on the studio set." This is a powerful understatement; if you happen to know that Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, you would understand that Herzog has not just seen this madness, he has been possessed by it himself. In fact, his own obsession was documented just as he documents Treadwell's. So he is no stranger to this phenomenon, our director and narrator.

Treadwell says of the bears, "everything about them is perfect." But this image of perfection doesn't seem to include some perfectly common aspects of bear behavior, such as males killing the cubs to bring females back into estrous, or females cannibalizing their own cubs in lean times. Treadwell's view of nature in harmonious balance does not include fox cubs being preyed upon by wolves. Ever a ray of sunshine, Werner contrasts Timothy's worldview with his own: "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." Days before his death, Treadwell films what may be the very bear that killed him, and Werner says: "I look into this blank stare and see only a half-bored interest in possible food; Treadwell saw in the same gaze a friend, even salvation."

The Wikipedia page says that Treadwell was in the park late in the season 2003 because of a "special circumstance." In Grizzly Man it is suggested that he was preparing to return to civilization when there was a dispute about the validity of his airline ticket. Rather than deal with this annoyance, typical as it was of everything he hated about the human world, he decided to return to his beloved bears. But now, late in the season, "his" bears were mostly in hibernation. The bears who met him were, as Herzog puts it, "new, scary bears from the interior." These bears were insufficiently prepared for the winter and desperate. They were, to put it bluntly, hungry.

Although he does say to the ever-present bloglike camera at one time, "Please don't let me get eaten by a bear," one is left with the impression that Treadwell may not have been all that disappointed in his manner of departure from this mortal coil. Indeed, this brings us back to a topic which isn't covered in the movie at all: Given that he was a drug and booze-addled failed actor looking for salvation, what in the hell dragged him to Alaska to find his calling with the bears? In his monologues Timothy makes it clear that he cleaned himself up after discovering the majesty of the bears, because they needed a "protector" who was not "messed up." How, then, did the messed-up person end up in Katmai National Park?

Did he originally go to Alaska to die? In all of his video monologues Treadwell shows a remarkable shallowness of observation, particularly in regard to matters of life and death. He is fascinated by and dwells on the potential for getting eaten by a bear. In my own mind I see Treadwell making his way to Alaska with the thought of not coming back half-formed, making his way to Katmai with the thought half-formed, recklessly approaching the bear as all the guide books tell you to never do, the bear rearing up like some god out of a comic book and then ambling off, Treadwell not being worth the bother when the salmon are running. And the drug and booze-addled failed actor drawing the conclusion so many others have drawn over the centuries: I must have been spared for a reason.

This is of course pure conjecture, but if it were true it would explain much.

The Cipher

The helicopter pilot who brought Treadwell back in a plastic bag says on film: "Treadwell got what he deserved. The tragedy was that he brought the girl along."

In all of Treadwell's footage there were only two blurry shots of Amie Huguenard. Amie's family did not cooperate with Herzog's venture, leaving him with a maddening absence of visuals about this person whose death was so intimately tied to Treadwell's, yet not nearly so ironic. Late in the movie Herzog shows us a third shot, given to him at the last moment in editing perhaps because it was being kept in evidence; it shows Amie ducking out of the shot as Timothy films a bear looming behind her. "Timothy's diary reveals that Amie was afraid of the bears," Herzog tells us as he freezes the frame, revealing her face for one brief instant in all of Timothy's hundreds of hours of film.

Herzog does not play the death tape for us. Instead, he lets the coroner describe it: Treadwell is yelling for help. Amie screams. Treadwell screams. You can hear Amie striking the bear with a frying pan. Finally, Treadwell says "Run. Amie, Run!" Perhaps realizing that he is really going to die he tells Amie to save herself. But Amie stays and continues to fight. The bear wanders off for a moment and Amie tries to tend to Treadwell's wounds. But then the bear returns, and kills Amie too.

Herzog seems to find Amie's behavior mysterious; Treadwell's diary and film make it clear that Amie was getting disillusioned and was likely to leave Treadwell soon. Why did she stay? I think this is a point where Herzog's usually clear vision failed him; it's very simple. There was nowhere for Amie to run to. She was all alone hundreds of miles from civilization, her camp invaded by a murderous bear, her protector dead, the spell that had kept him safe for thirteen years obviously gone if it had ever existed at all.

The Legacy

Timothy Treadwell's organization, Grizzly People, still exists. Treadwell's old girlfriend Jewel Palovak still runs it. When Jewel and Timothy met, as she relates on film, they were both working at a SCA-theme restaurant called Gulliver's. Jewel is just one of many people lifed from obscurity and inspired by Timothy's enthusiasm and his work.

Timothy's videos exist, and beyond Timothy's goofy Peter-Pan enthusiasm they remain powerfully beautiful.

And of course there is the one tape, recorded with the lens cap in place but the microphone open, full of the sounds of death which Timothy Treadwell never did understand were also a fundamental component of the natural world. Werner does not play the tape but he does listen to it, as Jewel holds the camera. After a few moments Werner looks at her. "You must never listen to this," he tells her, and she nods almost hysterically. "My advice is to get rid of it. Destroy it. If you keep this it will be the white elephant in the room for the rest of your life."

I wonder if she was able to follow his advice.

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