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Grizzly Man (2005)

by on 2012/09/29

“They kill, they bite, they decapitate.”

* * * *

I first read about Timothy Treadwell in a Vanity Fair article years ago. Treadwell lived with grizzlies in Alaska.

Grizzlies + unarmed man = unhappy ending. So I thought.

I was right. So very, very.

To a secular humanist type like myself, documentaries are sort of like high holy artifacts. Holiest of holies. I find documentaries painfully hard to review.

How do you weigh on the quality of a fellow human being’s life? Rate it out of five? Werner Herzog accomplished, with a deft hand, the creation of a pure undiluted shot of the authentic essence of Timothy Treadwell.

Herzog had help from Treadwell himself. This amazing documentary was fashioned from the hours of Treadwell’s own footage of himself and the bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

This is a stressful documentary to watch. Even if I hadn’t read the Vanity Fair piece years before watching this the other night, you know in the first few frames how this story ends.

Treadwell spent a remarkable, miraculous 13 summers living – literally – among the grizzlies. And by “living among,” I mean reaching out to pat them on the snarling nose.

Did I mention this documentary was really stressful?

The life and work of Timothy Treadwell was polarizing. Treadwell called himself a “gentle warrior” and insisted he was protecting these giants.

One pilot who was tasked with retrieving the eviscerated remains of Treadwell and his unlucky girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was withering in his criticism. Clearly angry, the pilot said Treadwell thought he was dealing with people in bear costumes and they could …”bond as children of the universe.”

The clue that there was a bit of a childish misconception about bears comes in the form of Treadwell’s own names for the bears: Mr. Chocolate, Aunt Melissa, Demon Hatchet, Grinch and Rowdy.

Herzog favours the slow reveal. He’s sympathetic, a kind voice explaining Treadwell’s ordinary past, nice parents, a good upbringing, a failed stint as an actor, surfer. Then underemployment, dipsomania Treadwell himself explains that he nearly drank himself to death but “his animals” saved him.

Treadwell promised the bears … “if they would look over me, I would become a better person.”

Herzog is always there, a kindly, sympathetic presence. As narrator he’s needed. He’s needed to tell the story with balance. It would be entirely too easy to dismiss Treadwell as crazy, personality-disordered, bipolar. From the footage, you see some clear evidence of all of the above.

But there is more to the story of this man, these human lives. So much more.

Herzog shows us exactly that.

* * * *

Rated R for language, disturbing situations

103 minutes

Rated R for language, disturbing situations

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