To call Timothy Treadwell a man madly in love with grizzly bears is a statement of adverbial precision. For 13 summers, the self-appointed advocate of Ursus horribilis chose to camp out on the Alaskan peninsula as an uninvited guardian and promoter of the species, obsessively documenting his experience on videotape to create his own personal nature movie with himself as heroic movie star. Before he found his calling, Treadwell dreamed of becoming an actor, and even alone in the wilderness, he was vain about his surfer-boy good looks, his sun-bleached hair styled in a distinctive Prince Valiant shag. ”They’re not that different from us,” the home-grown naturalist said of his neighbors as the boundaries between man and beast became increasingly unstable. Treadwell’s mission lasted until October of 2003, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were mauled to death by one of the creatures he considered his friends. He was 46 years old when he died, with a video camera running. The picture failed. The audio portion survived.
In a stunning application of nature’s balance to art, Werner Herzog makes use of some of the 100-plus hours of video footage Treadwell left behind to create Grizzly Man, a mesmerizing work of disturbing power and unease. The director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, famous for both his fiction and documentary studies of men teetering between omnipotence and insanity, has crystallized his reputation as a chronicler of metamorphosing personality. Immersing himself in details, the filmmaker incorporates Treadwell’s own footage (Treadwell sometimes indulged in multiple takes to achieve the look of spontaneity); interviews with a zoologist, a medical examiner, and the pilot who discovered the bodies when he flew in to Treadwell’s base camp; and narration, in his own hypnotically mild German accent.
We don’t hear Treadwell’s death, but we watch as Herzog listens to the audio evidence and then advises Treadwell’s former girlfriend/business partner to destroy the tape without listening to it. We respond emotionally, nonetheless; in Grizzly Man, Herzog has bushwhacked fearlessly into one man’s thorny soul.