Saturday, August 13, 2005

Grizzly Man: Dead Man Talking

Jan, Andrew and I saw "Grizzly Man" today.

GM is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an enviromental activist dedicated to protecting wildlife who lived unarmed among grizzly bears in Alaska's grizzly infested Katmai National Park for 13 years. A grizzly killed and ate he and his girlfriend at the end of his final summer there.

Treadwell video taped over 100 hours of his experiences during his last 5 years among the grizzlies. Werner Hertzog, a German director I like who specializes in movies about obsessed heroes, edited Treadwell's footage and adds interviews with his friends, family, co-workers, and critics.

It's truly unique and well worth seeing.

Some brief takes on GM:

It's disturbing yet also pretty hilarious a lot of the time. Hertzog--who appears as himself in the documentary and gives the voice of God narration--is obviously European in his approach. He's ironic and open-minded but also a little pretentious at a few unfortunate moments that take away from the power of the whole thing. His accent reminded me of Mike Meyers' German uber-hip character "Dieter" from SNL. I kept expecting Hertzog to start dancing to techno while offering to let the people he interviewed "touch my pet monkey."

Treadwell comes across as a kind of wierdly funny Pee Wee Herman version of Henry David Thoreau in the midst of a much more violent and dangerous Walden Pond. He hated "civilized" life and was willing to go to almost any lengths to escape it.

Before he went to Alaska he grew up in Florida as an All-American boy and then lived in LA trying to make a career as an actor. He became a drug addict and alcoholic along the way.

Then, like John Newton, a slave ship captain who converted to Christianity and eventually wrote "Amazing Grace," Treadwell left his dissolute life behind in order to devote himself to a higher calling.

He knew, along with Karl Rove, the value of Christian myths. Everybody likes the tale of the drunk frat boy who converts and becomes a crusader for goodness and right.

But in Treadwell's case, it's nature--and grizzly bears in particular--that give him a reason to live rather than God or the glory of American empire.

So he begins living among grizzlies and imagines that he's saving them.

He brought along his video camera and recorded himself and the grizzlies in some of the most astonishing footage I've ever seen.

He lived very directly among the grizzlies and other wildlife with no protection other than a flimsy tent and his own wits and intuition.

But he also recorded his most private thoughts and emotions, some of which are profane and disturbing. He comes across as troubled and obviously self-destructive. Like a lot of addicts and recovering addicts he battled self-absorption and delusional thinking. More than a few people who watch GM will wonder if his whole grizzly adventure was simply a way of taking his own life while going out in a blaze of glory.

In spite of all that, quite a few of his introspective moments and unhinged rants are really funny. One summer very little rain falls, which begins to kill some of the grizzlies and other animals that Treadwell has gotten to know well. He films himself begging God for rain even though he isn't religious and isn't sure exactly who to address. So he covers his bases and asks/demands help from "Christ Man, Buddha Dude, Allah, and That Floaty Hindu Thing."

To be fair, though, he obviously never thought that many of those "private moments" in his footage would end up in a documentary distributed around the world. How would any of us like our private thoughts and worst moments--which we thought we could edit out before the final version--open like a book for the whole world to see?

The effect, though, of those parts of the documentary is reminiscent of the strange attraction of "reality tv" and Oprah culture, but taken to an extreme.

Hertzog demonstrates some restraint and thankfully chooses not to show images of Treadwell's remains or play the audio version of his death. The attached lens cap on Treadwell's still-running camera blocked any visual version of his violent end but the microphone was working fine and picked up every detail. The bizarre county coroner--who would fit right in on the Addams Family--used the sound recording immediately after the deaths to reconstruct what happened.

Speaking of extremes, Treadwell's also a poster boy for "X Games" culture where the more extreme and dangerous it is the more authentic it is. If civilization is all about guard rails, what could be more heroic and edgy than living with grizzlies?

He probably sounds like a whack job by now. He was a whack job. But he was also--in his own way--a courageous visionary.

He did something nobody else has ever done--living for many years succesfully 24/7 among arguably the most powerful predators in the world, mostly alone and without protection of any kind. He knew the risks he was running and had to be careful at every moment. Even one mistake would have killed him. One mistake did kill him.

His critics in the documentary strongly challenge his approach as naive and destructive. They wonder if he did more harm than good to the grizzlies by crossing the ancient dividing line between humans and animals. They--including the director Hertzog--question the fact that he imagined nature as mostly benign rather than "red in tooth and claw." They make good points and I agree with many of them.

But in the end, even if you're put off by aspects of his personality and worry about his sanity, it's hard not to like--or at least respect--somebody who accomplishes the ecological equivalent of landing on the moon for the first time. As truly wierd and deeply troubled as he was, there was something authentically great about Treadwell.

He's already a semi-legend in the outdoor community, but if he'd done what he did 150 years ago I think he might have been remembered along with other great amateur naturalists like John Muir. His life among the grizzlies would have come down to us in more positive generalities along with some colorful stories about his eccentricities. That would only have been possible, though, in an era with no video cameras and no obsession with therepeutic psychology.

Some people may be born at the wrong time and in the wrong place. If so, Treadwell was one of them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:08 PM  
Blogger derailuer said...

cool post GREAT pic!!!!!!!

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:44 PM  
Blogger ruth said...

whaddaya mean, grizzly-infested??

some environmental sociologists I know would be all over you for your value-laden language.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks Ruth. You're right. Dumb choice of words. Clumsily trying to capture the danger he faced.

If I had written the review with a grizzly take on reality I guess I would have referred to "human infested" Alaska.

I do think the issue of human cohabitation with top of the food chain predators is important for the future of environmentalism.

That's one part of the environmentalist agenda that seems weak right now. Along with lots of other things. Maybe the topic of a future post.

Seems like ecosystems can't do without major non-human predators, but they're a constant threat to human life. Obvious tension.

I'm very encouraged by the progress made recently in re-introducing wolves into the US in spite of hostile opposition.

But grizzlies. Geez.

That's probably why I was so moved by Treadwell's efforts to find a way to live among super-predators.

In the end, it's hard to imagine people living up close to big teeth and claws if we aren't willing to lose some people in the natural order of things without responding by killing off the whole species so we can feel safe.

Maybe the western cultural idea of the supreme importance of each individual has been misapplied in this instance.

Perhaps someday people will celebrate those who are killed by top predators just like they do people who are killed in wartime. Seems like many people think that the sacrifice of lives in war is worth it because it serves a greater good. If some people have to sacrifice their lives so that ecosystems can function normally again, maybe their deaths would be at least as honorable as those who die on the battlefield.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Programy stuff?

11:23 AM  
Blogger ruth said...

if you do post about that whole human-predator thing, take a look at David Quammen's latest book- it's called something like "The Monster of God in the Jungles of the Human Mind: The Man-Eating Predator". He describes 4 current situations of conflict between man-eating predators and humans.

I heard him speak in Idaho. These subtitled books are always fun... you never know what you're going to hear when you go to a talk entitled "The Monster of God in the Jungles of the Human Mind".

anyway, at the end someone asked him how these conflicts could be resolved. His answer: "I don't solve the problems. I just bring them up."

10:41 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

I'll take a look at Quammen's book. I don't know his stuff so I'm looking forward to it. The title reminds me of William Blake's lines "Tiger, Tiger burning bright in the forests of the night..."

Fear is a brain stem thing. So powerful.

8:26 PM  

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