Can anyone love anything as much as Timothy Treadwell loved being amongst the grizzlies we see him with during his annual excursion into the Alaskan wilderness, trips he chronicled for educational purposes, posterity, and perhaps a stab at fame? Footage that shows him frequently venturing to within arms-length of these majestic creatures, acknowledging the dangers while simultaneously reveling in the beauty of the moment, capture the unbridled spirit of a man with a singular, undeterrable passion.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker more than familiar with the extreme measures one can take to pursue a passion, having famously navigated the rapids of the Amazon river in a boat that he pulled over a mountainside, once again explores this theme in the documentary Grizzly Man, a film posthumously assembled from the years of footage Treadwell shot, in an effort to understand the meaning of his life and death.
What does it mean to film yourself? To believe that what you are doing is so important it needs to be documented for the world to see. Perhaps in this day and age it’s a mute point. The question, ‘Why am I doing this?’, has been replaced by an impulse to take part in the global conversation, or screaming match, that finds billions of people waving their digital arms about in an effort to be heard. But there was a period of time, before we were walking around with a production studio in our pocket, when capturing moments took effort and ego. A time when we didn’t catalog our breakfast or watch concerts through our phones with our arms stretched to get a better shot over the hordes of others doing the same in front of us.
‘Likes’ are the carrot dangling in front of the mule. And ‘followers’ equal truth in a saturated world. Should we consider it a coincidence then that for the first time in nearly 800 years we are seeing a rebirth of the Flat Earth Myth?
One of the reasons to buy a DVD (or Bluray…you know what I mean) in the streaming world is to get the bonus content. The making of and the deleted scenes. The finished movie is so polished, we don’t get to see the muck just outside the frame, so we desire that hint of reality that wasn’t run through the CGI machine. We want to see our stars off-script. We want to see what the filmmaker thought didn’t fit in the story, or was an error. We want to see something real.
If Treadwell had not been killed, nearly every scene of Grizzly Man would have been significantly different. The film would no longer be about the Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell, but rather one that was more about the grizzlies. And that’s the magic of this film. We shape what we share everyday to craft the narrative of our lives. To make them look fuller. To make them look more exciting. To make us seem more significant than we are. And that was a part of the film that Treadwell was making. He was the Grizzly Warrior, friend of nature and defender of the wild. But the film Herzog made was void of those intentions and focused more on the parts that were intended to be cut. Not just the best take, but all of them.
“Carry bolt cutters everywhere,” is a life lesson Werner Herzog gives to filmmakers looking for a bit of inspiration. Let nothing get in the way of making your film, be it laws, walls or danger. And I don’t doubt that it’s that shared mentality that drew Herzog to Treadwell’s story. I don’t know if there has ever been a filmmaker who embodied that spirit more than Treadwell, an outsider breaking the laws of the land, sneaking in the bushes and sacrificing his life for his work. If you listen close enough you can detect the camaraderie and a faint trace of envy in Herzog’s narration, as though he hopes to go out with a camera in his hand too.
Speaking of that camera in hand, while the two share a common spirit, it’s Herzog’s understanding of the language of cinema that elevates Grizzly Man to status of cinematic royalty. It is more than just a zany character in the woods.
In 1975 the best thing to happen to cinema was a mechanical shark broke and audiences were forced to imagine just how terrifying the thing below the surface was in Jaws. For Herzog, a lens cap granted him the same opportunity. Teased throughout the runtime, when Werner sits for the ‘never listen to this’ scene, as he tells Treadwell’s former everything that it’s too horrible to imagine what’s on that tape and it must be destroyed, he is basically signalling to the audience that this is their queue to fill in the blanks. And instantly we have a horror documentary.
Grizzly Man was directed by Werner Herzog, but I doubt he would even argue that this is Timothy Treadwell’s story. The pieces were assembled in a masterful way, but the honesty on screen is all Treadwell. In dying he didn’t get a chance to edit that out.