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Friday, January 20, 2006

Some thoughts on Grizzly Man

"A story of our times," is how one of the audience summed up last night's screening of Werner Herzog's new documentary, Grizzly Man. I'm not so sure I agree.

Grizzly Man is certainly a number of things: beautifully and lovingly made, at times hypnotically engaging, and at others, sharply revealing. But overall it felt--and I hesitate to use the word, though no other seems to present itself--slight.

Timothy Treadwell is no tragic figure. He's way too pathetic for tragedy. A former surfer who was concerned with keeping his blonde pageboy haircut just so to cover his receding hairline after a wipeout; a failed actor who supposedly just lost out to Wooody Harrelson for the role of the bartender on Cheers.

Burned by Hollywood, he heads north, away from the nuisances of people and civilisation, and immerses himself in the world of the grizzly bear. Delusion and romanticism set in, leading Treadwell to believe he is some ursine saviour, the only human concerned with saving the animal from destruction. In fact, the opposite is true: not only are the bears in no danger, Treadwell does more harm than good, ignoring the quite reasonable rules concerning human interaction with bears, possibly leading the animals to the dangerous conclusion that all humans have friendly intentions.

Herzog is fascinated by Treadwell's story, but not taken in by it (though his final assesment is perhaps a little too generous, and surely the Thoreau comparison is pushing it). As a filmmaker, he appreciates Treadwell's own way with a camera (the often breathtaking film footage of the Alaskan wilderness Treadwell shot over a number of summers forms much of Grizzly Man) and also sympathises with his futile and ultimately fatal urge to reconcile modern man with the wild. But he recognises Treadwell's flaws and limitations, that this self-mythologising, selfish--and probaby manic--individual was ultimately more desperate to save himself than the grizzlies.

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