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Haunting documentary examines life, death of "Grizzly Man"
Seattle Times movie critic
"Grizzly Man" is the strange, sad and mesmerizing tale of a man who wanted to be a bear. Timothy Treadwell, a lanky, tow-headed loner, spent 13 summers camping on a remote peninsula in Alaska, living among grizzly bears — and eventually killed by them in October 2003 (along with girlfriend Amie Huguenard, who was spending part of that 13th summer with him).
An author, amateur bear expert and wildlife preservationist, Treadwell left behind more than 100 hours of footage of his beloved bears and of himself standing among them, often speaking to the camera and defiantly describing himself as their protector.
Werner Herzog's haunting documentary, made up of Treadwell's footage and interviews with people who knew him, examines not just Treadwell's story but his soul. The legendary German filmmaker and the doomed man who styled himself as the bears' Prince Valiant (according to Herzog) turn out to be an inspired pairing; with Herzog's musings on Treadwell's life and death adding perspective to the tragedy.
No silent documentarian, Herzog's unmistakable voice narrates the film, commenting on Treadwell as tragic hero, madman — and filmmaker. ("I have seen this madness before," says Herzog, "on a film set.")
Treadwell's footage can speak for itself, and often does, chillingly. In one clip, he stands in the foreground while a large grizzly (one he's named The Grinch, for her cranky disposition) stands behind him, approaching him as he talks to the camera. He turns around, just as our hearts are in our throats, and addresses her in the honeyed, childlike tones in which one might speak to a pet. The bear retreats, and you wonder, for a moment, if he really did have some sort of special gift.
Later, you see him reduced to near-tears over a dead bee or murmuring increasingly desperate "I love yous" to a small fox. When he addresses the camera, he's grand and self-important; when he addresses the animals, it's as if he's pleading for acceptance among them.
At one point, Treadwell's hand reaches out beyond the camera toward the bears — as if, says Herzog, "there was a desire for him to leave the confines of his humanness." Treadwell created a utopian world with his beloved friends that suited him better than the human world, choosing to disregard any potential danger. In a wince-inducing clip from "The David Letterman Show," on which Treadwell talked about grizzlies, Letterman makes a joke about his guest eventually being eaten by bears. Everyone laughs, except Treadwell.
Treadwell and Guguenard's horrible demise was captured on audio (the lens cap had been left on the camera), but Herzog wisely doesn't subject us to it. But we do see the director listening to it, clearly shaken. "You must never listen to this," he tells Treadwell's friend Jewel Palovak, who nods tearfully.
Palovak, who co-authored "Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska" with Treadwell in 1997, is among those interviewed for the film, which also include the Alaskan pilot who was the last to see Treadwell and Huguenard alive, and a rather dramatic coroner who seems to be enjoying his moment of fame. Of Huguenard we learn little, other than the heartbreaking detail (from Treadwell's journals) that she was frightened of bears.
At the end, we see Treadwell's final footage, unwittingly captured shortly before his death. "He seems to hesitate in leaving the last frame of his own film," notes Herzog, as Treadwell lingers before the camera, seemingly reluctant to turn it off — a last moment of control, in a world over which he ultimately had none.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company