Thursday, December 20, 2007

Werner Herzog - Grizzly Man (2005)

I'll come right out and admit it - this is the first Herzog film I've seen, though Aguirre and Nosferatu have been on my list for some time. But, if this film is anything to go by, everyone who recommended his work to me was right about the depth of the impression it leaves on the viewer. Despite its flaws, GM is one of the most thought-provoking films I've seen for quite some time.

The documentary, narrated by Herzog himself and featuring a haunting acoustic guitar soundtrack by Richard Thompson, follows the story of Timothy Treadwell, the 'grizzly man' of the title. Treadwell was devoted to grizzly bears, and spent every summer for thirteen years with the bears, until, in 2003, he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten by a grizzly. For the six years previously, Treadwell had been documenting his sojourns on camera. This footage makes up a great deal of the doco; the rest is interviews with those who knew Timothy or were involved in the events around his death, as well as some gorgeous landscape shots of the Alaskan wilderness where Treadwell lived with the bears.

Treadwell himself is a bizarre, irritating and fascinating character. An actor and a former alcoholic and heavy drug user, he seems to have had a 'conversion' experience which turned him into the 'grizzly man' (who nonetheless took his childhood stuffed bear with him into the wilderness). But his life involved a great deal of myth-making, from his name (which he had changed from 'Timothy Dexter'), to his origins (he claimed to have been born in Australia), to the fact that in the film he took of himself (intended for his own documentary) he consistently concealed the fact that he was not always alone in the wilderness, but was accompanied by Huguenard.

The film's greatest flaw, to my mind, is Herzog's intrusive, heavily accented narration, which is often portentous and pretentious, and adds little to the tragic and beautiful story which unfolds around Treadwell. The material Herzog presents could easily stand alone, and his observations, whether on the random beauty of the shots of the wilderness captured between Treadwell's gung-ho on-film heroics, or his criticisms of Treadwell's very obvious flaws and absurdities, are redundant. There is also a particularly objectionable, crypto-voyeuristic scene in which Herzog is played the six-minute sound recording of the deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard (the camera had been running, but with the lens cap on), after which he tells Jewel Palovak (Treadwell's close friend, and the possessor of the tape and his other effects) that she must never listen to it, that she must destroy it, and that she must never look at the autopsy photographs of Treadwell (his remains and those of Huguenard were for the most part recovered from the stomach of the bear who killed them, which was shot when Treadwell's death was discovered).

Nonetheless, the questions the film raises are even more fascinating than the sheer beauty of the footage of grizzlies and foxes at play. The essential issue here revolves around the relationship between humans and 'nature'. Treadwell came more and more to loathe 'the human world', as he called it, and this was eventually to lead to his death: when returning from Alaska he got into an altercation regarding his plane ticket, and he therefore decided to return to the wilderness, staying later in the season than he ever had before and thus encountering hostile and starving bears with whom he had not previously come in contact. But his view of both 'nature' and of the human role was hopelessly utopian, and this, combined with a massive ego which led to a heavy overestimation of his own capacity to avoid conflict with the grizzlies, was a fatal flaw.

Treadwell, complete with Prince Valiant haircut (concealing his receding hairline), saw himself as a 'kind warrior' and a 'samurai' who, unlike anyone else in the world, was capable of interacting with grizzlies on their own terms. In this attitude, however, we see how monumental was his arrogance, and the way in which his project was all about himself, rather than about the bears. A telling moment is one in which he tells a fox he has named 'Timmy' that he (the fox) is 'master of all the bears and all the foxes'; telling also is the way in which his monologue (which is a bizarre, over-enthusiastic stream of childish enthusiasm and comic-book phraseology, punctuated by exaggerated emotional tantrums) constantly draws on concepts of 'mastery' and martial analogies. One can't help agreeing with the indigenous curator of an Alaskan museum that Treadwell's interactions with the bears (which included a great deal of close contact), contrary to his protestations of love (and he was also a tireless educator, giving free speeches to schoolchildren about bear protection) were the ultimate in disrespect, inasmuch as he did not respect the boundary between their domain and his own.

But why should we consider what Treadwell was doing, living among the bears, more reprehensible than the actions of figures such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey? While I'm not usually one to champion 'scientific objectivity', this discourse seems to have placed a distance between the abovementioned scientists and the objects of their research which Treadwell, as a self-conceived eco-warrior figure, did not possess (we might also add that, while ego must not be overlooked as a motivation in scientific work, Treadwell's self-aggrandisement seems to have grown from the 'conversion experience' which led to his self-mythologising as 'the grizzly man'). Gender issues also seem relevant, in terms of Treadwell's militaristic conception of his role in mediating between the 'grizzly world' and the 'human world', and in his macho conception of his ability to handle the grizzlies. Having said this, such an interaction is always problematic; Fossey herself seems to have begun to lose the plot in the final period of her interaction with gorillas in Rwanda, dressing up, for example, as a traditional evil spirit in order to scare off poachers and others from the gorilla habitat; and in this case, too, such behaviour may well have contributed to her death.

The publicisation of the work of individuals like Fossey and Goodall led to a much greater public appreciation of the inherent value of the lives of the animals they studied, and therefore can be seen as positive in this regard. However, if GM can be said to have a moral, the one I drew was that the best thing humans can do for wild animals is to leave them alone. Treadwell's utopian view of nature is certainly more benign than an attitude which explicitly values humans above other animals and sees nature as nothing more than a justifiably exploitable resource (indeed, a resource which it is morally incumbent upon humans to subjugate and exploit); but it certainly did him no good, and arguably harmed his cause (drawing a great deal of ire, and the intrusion of 'Treadwell-hunters' into the wilderness on at least one occasion). Here we might also think of the fate of Steve Irwin.

In opposition to Treadwell's naive boys' own fantasies with an eco-twist, Herzog's view, as expressed in the narratorial voice, is the diametric opposite: that 'nature' is a harsh chaos, and that animals are nothing more than mindless eating machines (and, as mentioned above, I failed to see the necessity for this judgmental and heavy-handed intrusion). These two points of view draw on what we might call 'equal and opposite' binary traditions in the Western conception of 'nature': that it is either a hideous, dangerous realm, ultimately hostile to humanity; or that it is a morally and literally unspoiled wilderness which is a paradise for humans. Either concept sees Westerners (as opposed to, for example, 'noble savages') as somehow 'outside' of the realm of 'nature' which they 'encounter' in certain circumstances. Both of these views seem to me equally reductionist, and both revolve around a conception of humans as 'central' to an external 'nature' which can lead to nothing but harm, whether through benign or malign intentions toward that 'nature'.

Ultimately, whatever its flaws, this documentary is beautiful, haunting, maddening and thought-provoking; the intensity of any one of these aspects alone would make it worthwhile watching, but all together, they add up to an experience which, appropriately, enriches the viewer's mental landscape.

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