In the summer of 1990, Timothy Treadwell ventured into the Alaskan wilderness to live among its grizzly bears. He returned yearly, until his 2003 death (with girlfriend Amie Huguenard) at the claws of one of the creatures he sought to befriend, to protect and, on some level, to become. “Grizzly Man” is a brilliant portrait of adventure, activism, obsession and potential madness that ranks among helmer Werner Herzog’s strongest work. Co-production of Lions Gate Films and Discovery Channel looks to receive the widest distribution of any Herzog pic in years and should see brisk theatrical biz before its fall 2005 television premiere.
Beyond the obvious fascination of his story lies Treadwell’s awareness of its cinematic possibilities; he documented his Alaska trips in more than 100 hours of self-shot video footage.
Like the homemovies of “Tarnation’s” Jonathan Caouette, Treadwell’s tapes, excerpts of which comprise much of “Grizzly Man,” are a kaleidoscope of confession, performance and self-reinvention. Speaking a mile a minute to an imagined audience, and sporting floppy blond hair, a surfer tan and an ever-present bandana, Treadwell appears as the host of his own private reality television series, his beloved grizzlies almost always nearby.
Over the course of his 14 summers, Treadwell identified and even nicknamed dozens of bears. Seeing him in the close company of these majestic beasts — at one point even offering color commentary as two of them fight — is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet, as Herzog (who, as usual, provides the film’s eloquent narration) is quick to point out, some of the most remarkable moments in Treadwell’s videos occur when he turns his camera away from himself: a fox’s paws tap-tapping on the outside of Treadwell’s tent; tree branches dancing in a sudden breeze. In one sequence that simply defies description, Treadwell, angered by a lengthy drought that has deprived the grizzlies of a fresh salmon supply, successfully incants a torrential downpour.
Sensing an affinity with Treadwell, as both filmmaker and fellow adventurer, Herzog set out in September 2004 to plumb deeper into Treadwell’s air of mystery: Was his subject an artist, anthropologist or shaman? Were the grizzlies Treadwell’s “friends,” as he claimed, or were they merely indifferent to his presence? Was his view of nature a utopian ideal or merely naive? As Herzog conducts interviews with those who knew Treadwell best, the enigma only deepens, resulting in a dense portrait of a former waiter, struggling actor and recovering alcoholic who refashioned himself as an Australian rogue and fled the same civilization that, to quote Herzog, “drove Thoreau out of Walden.”
In making “Grizzly Man,” Herzog has opened a kind of portal through which he can talk to, and even argue with, Treadwell across time and space. Certain questions remain unanswerable, which is likely just as Herzog would have it. For five decades, he has pursued the mystery of human experience from one corner of the earth to the next, often risking life and limb. And this study of the “Grizzly Man” is one to set beside Kaspar Hauser, Brain Sweeney Fitzgerald and Deter Dengler in Herzog’s gallery of willful iconoclasts.
On the tech side, cameraman Peter Zeitlinger’s beautiful Alaskan landscapes are well accompanied by guitarist Richard Thompson’s lyrical original score.