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Grizzly Man
cast: Timothy Treadwell, and the anguish of being weighed against the horror of non-being

director: Werner Herzog

104 minutes (15) 2005
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Composed largely of footage from self-proclaimed eco-warrior Timothy Treadwell's 13 summers spent living with the Grizzly bears of a US national park, Werner Herzog's latest documentary also includes discussions with biologists, conservationists and government officials (most of whom had a negative opinion of Treadwell's activities) as well as Treadwell's friends and family (most of whom, unsurprisingly, supported him).

Despite extensive use of Treadwell's beautiful and frequently dangerous footage of his time spent in the wild, this is not a nature documentary. As much as it would be pleasing to hear it, you will not hear the monotone Teutonic voice of Werner Herzog whispering like David Attenborough. Instead, what Herzog has produced is an incredible character study of a man who was lost in the human world but managed to find himself in the wilds of Alaska only for the wilds to turn on him and literally eat him alive.

Treadwell started off in life with a swimming scholarship but after a back injury he quickly gravitated towards acting. After failing to get anywhere as an actor, Treadwell sank into a world of drink and drugs until eventually he nearly died from an overdose. Taking the advice of the man that saved his life, Treadwell decided to spend a summer watching wild bears. Over the years, Treadwell became increasingly emotionally involved with the bears, he named them and got close enough to touch them and would eternally shout out to them in a singsong voice "I love you!" The peace Treadwell evidently found with the bears began to consume him as his tendency to create fictional narratives transformed him into the star of his very own movie. This flamboyant and camp character was not a lonely recovering alcoholic but a campaigning ecologist who fought to keep the bears safe from poachers and even from the US government, as one of his on-screen and unhinged rants suggests he believed the bears were at risk from the State. Indeed, the more Treadwell's life as an environmentalist sucked him in, the more paranoid and alienated he became from his fellow humans, as illustrated by a chance encounter with some fishermen, which transforms Tim the 'gentle warrior' who's stalking some poachers, when a friendly message left for him is read as a threat to return and kill him.

Grizzly Man is an obvious return to the nihilistic themes that have characterised much of Werner Herzog's back catalogue. Treadwell is in many ways a typically Herzogian character. As with many of Herzog's earlier films, Treadwell's story is one of a man who, when faced with the valueless nothingness of existence, devotes himself utterly to projecting values and beliefs onto that existence. Treadwell brings meaning to his own life by casting himself as the crusading environmentalist despite most environmentalists believing that actually his actions brought more harm than good by familiarising the bears to human contact. He projects meaning onto the bears that surround him by giving them human names and attributing to them human emotions and characteristics. However, in true Herzogian fashion, nature proved largely indifferent to Treadwell's actions and his reward for spending over a decade 'protecting' the bears was to be eaten alive, along with his girlfriend, by an old bear too physically weak to hunt salmon before winter.

In one scene, Herzog listens to the tape of Treadwell's final moments as he was eaten alive while his girlfriend tried to fight the bear off. To the morbidly curious among us, Herzog's decision to refrain from using extracts from the tape may seem like a bit of a swizz but Herzog compensates us by allowing the weird and theatrical coroner to tell the story of what happened at the end of Treadwell's life, his strange attempts to turn this meaningless act of carnage into a tale with a moral is uninterrupted by Herzog who allows the camera to linger on the coroner's face after he finishes speaking, as if giving us all an opportunity to see the same characteristics in ourselves; a tendency to spin meaning out of ultimately meaningless events. Meanwhile the just plain morbid among us will be more than contempt with the commentary of a Fish and Wildlife representative who talks about how they pulled four dustbin bags full of 'people' out of the bear's stomach and how Treadwell was an idiot who deserved everything he got in the end. Between the coroner and the employee of Fish and Wildlife, we see both sides of the human quest for meaning, the search for a beautiful story and the search for divine vengeance for every misjudged action.

Grizzly Man is a deceptively moving film. The beautiful images and Treadwell's eternally upbeat persona suggest that his story is a sad one - one of a lost soul. However, after watching it you'll realise that this story isn't just Treadwell's, it is the same story lived by every single human on the face of the planet searching for meaning in the face of a cold and indifferent universe that casually snuffs each of us out without a second's thought or a single care. That isn't sad... it's devastating.
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