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Grizzly Man (2005)Grizzly Man (2005)

           About the nicest thing you can say about Timothy Treadwell is that he was a controversial person who along with his girl friend Amie Huguenard died a senseless, tragic death when they were mauled by grizzly bears in Alaska's Katmai National Park in October 2003. Even more gruesome, his camera recorded the audio but not the video of the mauling. You will be disappointed if you watch this documentary to learn something about grizzlies, but if you view it as a commentary about human nature, both your own and the film's subject, it's fascinating.

           Timothy Dexter (he later changed his last name and cultivated an Australian accent) spoke about the "work" he did on his summer "expeditions" among grizzlies, but he was anything but a scientist, nor did he leave any papers or field diaries that advanced knowledge. He boasted about "protecting" the bears from humans, and styled himself an environmentalist or preservationist, but many argued that he harmed the grizzly population by habituating them to humans with his over familiarity with them. Treadwell spent thirteen summers from 1991–2003 with the grizzlies (nowhere do we learn what he did during the other nine months of the year), the last five of which he or Huguenard shot over 100 hours of amateur video. Some of the film's scenery, then, is spectacular. But 100 hours of video shot over roughly 500 days is not much, and at least 50% of this film comes from director Werner Herzog, not Treadwell. So Treadwell can hardly be thought of as a naturalist photographer despite his claim to that too. Still, he had his fifteen minutes of fame as an eccentric "grizzly man" on David Letterman's show.

           In fact, Treadwell was a college drop out who moved from New York to California, where he failed as an actor. By his own description in the film he descended into alcohol and drugs, and then as a deeply troubled loner he found solace by living in the Alaskan wilderness all by himself, except for his beloved bears. Treadwell treated these wild animals as his best friends, and some have even speculated that he understood himself as more of a bear than a human being. He speaks tenderly to them, pets them, thanks them for being his friend, calls them each by names he gave to them, and in one scene he even lovingly fondles the fresh excrement of a bear and describes how wonderful it is that just a few minutes earlier it had been inside of "Wendy." In another scene he cries when he discovers a dead bumble bee.

           To his credit Herzog does not romanticize Treadwell, and very early on we learn about his horrible death (he was decapitated, dismembered and digested by the bear, as the stomach contents that were retrieved a day later showed). Herzog interviews a number of people who knew Treadwell, including a former girl friend, park officials, and bush pilots who helped retrieve the remains. Grizzly Man evoked in me a sort of Freudian voyeurism about the worst sort of death imaginable, but in the end I was filled with sadness about a misfit who was so clearly alienated from all things human.

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