Sunday, August 05, 2007


Last week I listened to a Terry Gross interview with acclaimed director Werner Herzog who spoke about his just-released film Rescue Dawn.

I haven't yet picked myself up to get to the cinema to see it. But I will. Because, as Gross put it, "it's a Werner Herzog film" and also because the synopsis sounds good.

Instead, I went to the video store and rented Grizzly Man, Herzog's 2005 award winning documentary chronicling activities of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Herzog talked about the documentary during his Rescue Dawn interview and I felt compelled to see it.

I read about Timothy Treadwell's tragic death in Newsweek years ago and was under the impression that he was an educated scientist who chose to live among Alaska's grizzly population for study purposes.

How wrong I was. Herzog's documentary incorporates interviews conducted with friends and family and Treadwell's self-shot video. The viewer gets quite a bit of exposure to Treadwell who often speaks directly to his camera; Shots of Alaskan forest, foxes and bears in the wild abound.

But much of the film is Treadwell. Treadwell talking to the camera, talking to the animals, shooting sequences of himself talking about the animals for a potential future film, Treadwell sermonizing or going on tangential, paranoid rants as he hides in the bush from 'human enemies hunting him down'.

My first thought in seeing Treadwell's on-camera opening sequence was: Oh my god, he reminds me of San Francisco's homeless drug addicts.

And as it turns out, Treadwell had addiction issues and was delusional. Not that anyone in the film uses the term "delusional" but 1) he was out in the wild encroaching on bear territory without arms, protection or an electric fence surrounding his camp 2) he deemed himself a "protector" of bears and got close enough to them to pet them 3) he was self-alienated from society

I was disgusted with Treadwell. And bothered by the fact that his then-girlfriend perished alongside him in 2003. I was also reminded of California and new age concepts of "brotherhood and equality" that all-too-often don't account for the natural order of things or life's imbalances. I slept fitfully after viewing the film.

Kudos, however, to Herzog's treatment of the subject and footage. He didn't condemn or judge and although Herzog listened (on camera) to the audio tape of Treadwell and his girlfriend being killed - their camcorder was running at the time - he chose not to share it with viewers. A very powerful decision that worked very well.

Treadwell was misguided. But as Herzog narrates in the film, he gave the world some very good footage of wild animals. Perhaps that was his calling.

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