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AT THE MOVIES: Bear Hugs: Grizzly Man (***)

The only thing that makes human beings dominant are our enormous brains. We didn’t get this far because we evolved into ferocious beasts. We were scavengers with sufficient smarts to make weapons. And then a lot of smarts to make better weapons until eventually, we ruled over all living things.

Our power is offset by our compassion, our ability to sympathize with our fellow animals, and sometimes, even identify with them. Poor Timothy Treadwell, in the brilliant documentary, Grizzly Man, lost his head, both figuratively and literally when he went to live with Grizzly bears in Alaska. He forgot that we are easy prey for very hungry predators. He forgot that, in nature, it isn’t personal. It’s life or death, kill or be killed.

Grizzly Man is one of the most powerful, unforgettable and haunting documentaries on human nature ever made. It is at once a study of one filmmaker (Treadwell) by another, Werner Herzog, as well the diary of a madman. It wouldn’t have been enough simply to lay out Treadwell’s own video diaries of his 13 summers in the Grizzly Man, there had to have been Herzog’s attempt to understand Treadwell to make such a good film.

Herzog combed through the hours of tape to find what he considered spectacular filmmaking by Treadwell, moments in the film that come off like a film professor analyzing his student’s work. Herzog notes when Treadwell accidentally captures little miracles in nature no professional filmmaker (“with their union crews”) could ever capture – the tiny footprints of foxes on his tent, the graceful and lonely way the fall wind makes the grasses dance. And he notes when Treadwell intentionally and brilliantly captures shots of grizzlys that would be unthinkable let alone doable for anyone else on the planet.

Clearly, Treadwell had a death wish. He had been addicted to thrill-seeking one way or the other, starting as a boy when he befriended a wild squirrel, and on through high school where he was a high diver, then as a surfer described as fearless in the waves, and finally, his true calling, the biggest high of all: living among the most deadly creatures on the planet. His love of and passion for bears replaced his need for alcohol and drugs – he traded one addiction for another with equal amounts of kamikaze gusto: one or the other would eventually kill him. Brushing up so close to death gave him a rush like no other.

In Grizzly Man there is the tension between the style of one documentarian to another. Herzog is clearly in awe of Treadwell’s courage and brazen artistic freedom – what other filmmaker has the guts to walk right up to a grizzly bear and stick his hand out to pat its nose? And along with the awe comes some condescension and pity – Herzog is convinced Treadwell was insane. Only a madman would do what he did. To prove his point we see much footage of Timothy using the camera as a personal friend, confessing his troubles with girls (“I wish I was gay. But I like girls.”)

Indeed, it does appear as though Treadwell had either lost his mind long ago or was losing it. His appearances on David Letterman back this up – Letterman loves to exploit the crazies for laughs. But nonetheless, it is impossible not to end up adoring Treadwell – his goofy way of talking to the animals like they’re children (“Oh, that’s a very big bear!”), his innocence, his shyness, not to mention that he’s rather attractive – even with his ‘70s surfer do, which artfully covers up his receding hairline. Perhaps it’s a female thing; it does appear that most of his friends were women; men just didn’t get the guy.

Treadwell had wanted to be an actor and much of his footage bears this out – he is a ham. He loved performing, confessing, emoting, and having angry fits on camera, while all the while, death was just a grizzly paw away.

Though we aren’t given the opportunity to hear Treadwell’s final tape – the video camera was turned on during his attack but the lens cap was left on so there is no footage – we see Herzog listening to the tape, a moment so powerful it brings him to tears and he urges that the tape be destroyed. Herzog follows this up with footage of two grizzly bears fighting – they are massive, frightening beasts when provoked. Treadwell made the mistake of thinking he was one of them – maybe he was to some of them. But his grizzly friends weren’t the only grizzly bears up there – and to stragglers, ultimately Timothy and his girlfriend were sitting ducks.It is easy to look back on the whole of Treadwell’s life, as Herzog does, and draw conclusions. After all, there was finality: the grizzly bears eventually did what nature intended and killed Treadwell and his girlfriend. Just as the rough waves might have killed him or the alcohol. He was going down by his own carelessness one way or the other. What is interesting isn’t that he died up there but rather that he survived as long as he did.

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