Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Grizzly Story or a Disney Story: Thoughts on Herzog's Grizzly Man

Last evening, I watched Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, about bear lover and fanatic (for want of a better word) Timothy Treadwell. The film, made by Herzog in 2005, is composed mainly from the the over 100 hours of video filmed by Treadwell during the last five of his 13 summers spent up in grizzly bear country in Alaska, until he and his then girlfriend were killed and devoured by a bear in 2003. Despite this fact, the film has clear marks of Herzog in the way it has been edited together and the questions it raises.

If Treadwell, a recovering alcoholic and failed actor, can be described (quite aptly) as a natural Romantic, Herzog on the other hand serves as a more cynical counterpoint. For Herzog nature offers nothing Romantically sublime, but rather an utter indifference (something which Herzog's narration in the film returns to over and over again). To him, Treadwell's story is interesting mainly from two angles, both of which continually shine through:
1) the film maker's, i.e. the fact that Treadwell's footage captures scenes that are filmically sublime, in some sense; perhaps in their capturing the unforeseen and the spontaneous;
2) the human one, i.e. in Herzog's view, and the view of the finished film, Treadwell's footage tells us less about bears than about human beings, exemplified by that one human being, Timothy Treadwell.

Yet, between Treadwell's natural Romanticism and Herzog's cynical view of nature, the film brings out a third point of some importance, at least in my own analysis of it. People around Treadwell (former friends, lovers and acquaintances) continually talk about him as a person who wanted to be a bear. This is a line which his monologues on camera problematically both reaffirms and disclaims (the latter mostly in footage where he claims not to be one of the bears, but rather something like their lord and master).

Now, the notion of living with animals on the animals' terms is perhaps not as ludicrous as Herzog would seem to think. People like Dian Fossey who lived with the gorillas in Rwanda in such a manner seem to be proof of that possibility, but Treadwell for all his 13 summers in the Alaskan grizzly bear country does not seem to have been part of this. Don't get me wrong, I do not doubt that Treadwell himself believed that he was doing just that, but what his filmed material reveals something different. In none of the many clips Herzog has chosen to include in the film does Treadwell interact with the grizzly bears on the grizzly bears' term. Rather he talks to them as if they were cuddly toys (in a manner most resembling Fab 5's Carson Kressley gone nature fanatic).

I am here also reminded of The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, whose show continuously from within the confines of civilisation makes it abundantly clear that even those animals who are among the most domesticated by us are after all a different species. While communication is possible, such a thing necessitates an understanding of that difference, of finding ways to communicate with the animal in their own language as it were. In Cesar Millan's case, this means understanding the rules of dominance and submission inherent in canine pack mentality and never mistaking the dog's expressions for human expressions.

Treadwell, while claiming to understand the language of the bears and wanting, perhaps, to be one, shows no such actual tendencies in the material we are shown. In fact, if anything, the film offers the complete opposite. With his overly film-oriented persona he brings the age of reality TV to mind (e.g. shows like Jackass, Wild Boyz or the late Steve Irwin's Crocodile Hunter, though admittedly with a different sentimental flavour), and this is where the focus ceases to be the grizzly bears and truly becomes Treadwell himself. Herzog's revelation of repeated takes on Treadwell's part brings this very conscious film maker to the fore and some of his more emotional rants also show us the failed actor still acting out (Herzog's somewhat "veiled" reference to Klaus Kinski and his own collaborations with that man, so wonderfully depicted in the documentary Mein liebster Feind, brings this out even more).

In the final analysis, Treadwell was not so much a man who had gone bear (to paraphrase an old saying). He was a recovering alcoholic who had managed to turn his back on booze by substituting it with something else. And that something else was apparently a somewhat delusional view of the natural world of the grizzly bears. Without being able to stomach the "unfairness" (a very human concept, I think you will agree) of the natural order of things, be it young cubs killed by their elders or droughts that have Treadwell raging at deities he expresses no belief in (well, maybe some belief when rain actually appears), and with his insistent habit of talking to the animals as if they were small children (in a rather cute manner, as it were), it simply becomes impossible to see Treadwell as an actual part of the bear community. He becomes a, perhaps benign (at least in the most direct sense), intruder in the world of these grizzly bears; one that was allowed for a time to co-exist in their habitat (obviously on borrowed time, as it turned out), but an intruder nonetheless. Because Treadwell obviously desired a fantasy world. His was the desire to be a Tarzan or a Mowgli, a child of the woods, of the animals; but animals as understood from a Disney-fied perspective.

Throughout the film, Treadwell continuously talks about his respect for the bears (and the foxes). Yet his continuous, cute commentary and dialogue with them (including telling the animals repeatedly that he loves them) reveals little respect for them to my eyes. That is, at least if respect in any way means understanding the Other on its own terms rather than on your own terms. Because Treadwell, for all his rants and ravings against civilisation, was at the end of the day anthropomorphizing the bears and the foxes he interacted with, attributing them human emotions and responses rather than actually trying to understand these animals on their own terms (and seemingly expecting them to understand him on his).

In the end, to return to the title of this post, Timothy Treadwell's story was a (somewhat delusional) Disney story which turned into a grizzly story, simply because there is no other way such a story could end. Understanding the Other, whether in a cultural sense or (as in this case) a species sense, necessitates a proper understanding of the terms of interaction. Projecting one's own terms upon the world can not yield any true results; nothing more than a life inside a projected fantasy bubble. And those have a tendency to be shattered pretty harshly.

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