17. Grizzly Man: ‘Can you turn it off?’
When you type ‘Werner Herzog’ into google, the first thing that comes up is ‘eats his shoe’
This is the kind of director we are dealing with here.
The film ‘Grizzly Man’ explores the life and work of Timothy Treadwell a bear enthusiast who would go and spend time living among bears at certain times of year in a national park in Alaska. As with the deaths of Nikolayenko and McCandless, Treadwell’s subsequent demise via bear attack (quelle surprise!) divides people: Was he a hero or an idiot? Was he an expert who just got unlucky or was he so deeply misguided amateur born without that little voice most of us have that say: ‘Hey, maybe this is a bad idea?’
While I know McCandless wasn’t mauled as the other two were, I included him because he falls under a similar category of modern morality: A man who took on nature and lost and all 3 deaths have become cautionary tales as a result. Some chances ought to be taken, others are just empty attempts for validation and meaning that are destined to end in disaster. And yet they are remembered. For the less cynical in the world, men like Treadwell represent an honest attempt to live outside of society’s expectations, to be true to who you are and what you want to achieve even if it costs you your life.
‘Grizzly Man’ is a documentary directed and narrated by the one of a kind Werner Herzog and is well worth a look. I couldn’t give two shits in the woods about bears but Treadwell’s amazing footage intercut with interviews with the people that knew him best demonstrate the love he felt for his subjects. Hell, they were more than subjects to him-they were his life.
Was his work worthwhile? That is more complicated. While his organisation, Grizzly People, strove to bring attention to the plight of the grizzly bear, professionals who oversaw the park felt he put himself and others at risk via his delusion that he had a special connection with these wild creatures. Perhaps you can argue that, given that he lived among the bears on and off for 13 years before something happened, this is unfair. Except…He did put someone else at risk. Someone who, the film explained, didn’t want to be there but was dragged into Treadwell’s version of reality regardless. His girlfriend, Amie, died as he did because she was trying to save Treadwell from the bear that was attacking him.
How do we know this? Because, deep breaths, the camera was on when it happened. Yep. The lens cap was on so their deaths were not recorded visually but the audio of a man being torn apart by a bear as his girlfriend looked on in horror before her own death exists. Bits of the couple were recovered, including Treadwell’s arm with his watch still ticking, and all the footage from the park was returned to Treadwell’s friend and co-founder of Grizzly People, Jewel Palovak.
Now let’s go back to the film maker Werner Herzog for a moment. This is a guy who when he was shot with an air rifle during a BBC interview, noted he was bleeding from his abdomen and said with a laugh ‘it is not significant.’ This is a guy who eats shoes. A guy who climbs into volcanoes that could go off at any moment. Plus he is making a documentary and with that comes a certain objectivity, a detachment. He is a curious man but not one who is easily phased. That much is apparent when you look at his body of work and his eccentric personality. The dude has seen some shit.
So in the scene below Jewel Palovak allows Werner to listen to the audio of the moment Treadwell and Amie Huguenard were attacked. NOTE: PLEASE START THE VIDEO CLIP FROM 2.54 FOR THE SCENE IN QUESTION-
Is it necessary to listen to the audio? No. The story in that tiny tape is written on the face of Herzog and subsequently reflected in Palovak. Herzog becomes quiet, shaky, trembling. We don’t see the full impact play out on his face but we see in Palovak the fear mixed with the curiosity, the longing even, to know what he is hearing. But it is the moment that he takes off his headphones, the moment where they face each other and she starts to sob that you begin to realise the impact an event like that might have in someone’s life.
Herzog begs her never to listen to the tape and she immediately responds: ‘I know Werner, I’m never going to.’ They hold one another’s gaze and hands for a moment. Then, in his usual intense way, Werner tells her to destroy the tape. Anyone with even a passing interest in human behaviour will not be surprised to learn that she did not take this advice and the tape is still out there although locked in a vault. Herzog later said that his advice was wrong anyway, and it just came from the heat of the moment, the horror of what he had just experienced.
Taking away the largely feckless debate about whether Treadwell was mentally ill, an innocent dreamer or a moron with a Bear God complex, this moment is tremendously powerful. I respect Herzog and Palovak’s decision to leave the audio to our imagination, I appreciate the restraint, the dignity they allow the deceased, the decency that is demonstrated in not sharing such a mind blowingly horrible thing with the consumer, even as they still respect Treadwell’s wishes to spread his story. It is a brief and beautiful window into the horror of life and death that is done without feeling dirty or dishonest.
Of course, part of me wants to hear it. But I don’t want to feed that particular monster.
Watching their reaction to the reality of Treadwell and Huguenard’s last moments I feel dry. I can’t cry for them-It is like it is so horrific that all I can do is take it in. I can’t help wondering what Treadwell was thinking in those final moments. Did he feel betrayed? Frightened? Alone? Or just immense pain and nothing else? Did his pledge to live and die with the bears mean anything when they turned on him? What kind of man would allow Huguenard, who had made no such pledge to protect bears for the rest of her life, to be in a position where she could witness something like that? And she died too of course. I wonder what the people that consider Treadwell a hero who shielded his animals friends from poachers would offer up to her family by way of comfort?
The fact that we die alone is one that haunts all of us in different ways. For some reason it hit me very strongly while watching a German filmmaker listen to the terrifying sounds of a man’s life ending via bear attack. There you go. I am not exactly ashamed to admit I can’t end this better than the glorious great Roger Ebert who said:
‘I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.’
Tomorrow the emcee smiles as the world begins to crumble…#16