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Movies: Grizzly Man

This review contains mild spoilers.

Several weeks ago Some Random Guy From The Internet sent me email to recommend the film Grizzly Man. Well, you know me: I'll do anything I'm told to do over email, which is why I am forever purchasing penny stocks, verifying my Wells Fargo bank account, and watching you and your sister on your new webcam. So I saw it.

And hey, S.R.G.F.T.I: thanks! It was great.

Of course I was predisposed to like it, because Grizzly Man is a documentary and I loves me some documentaries. (I suspect I may have mentioned this here before, which is what earned me the aforementioned email in the first place.) That said, enough sets this film apart from most documentaries to prevent my liking it a sure thing. For one, the filmmaker, Werner Herzog, inserts himself into the narrative, doing the voiceover and occasionally even offering his own opinions on the events depicted. For another, most of the movie was not filmed by Herzog, but is, instead, literally found footage. How this footage came to be taken, and why it ultimately required a finding, is the story told.

Timothy Treadwell spent over a dozen summers living in the Katmai National Park & Preserve, frolicking with the grizzlies therein. You may think I am being glib but, no, the man actually frolicked -- talking to the bears in sing-songy voices, invading their personal space, and occasionally even touching them (invariably to their annoyance). One of many people interviewed in the film says that Treadwell "wanted to be a bear," and, at times, this seems like the literal truth.

For the last five of his annual visits Treadwell brought along a video camera. Because he didn't really do that much beyond hanging out with the bears, much of the footage is of Treadwell giving monologues about his life in the Preserve, with particular emphasis on the danger he faces.

Treadwell often referred to himself as the bears' protector, though it's unclear what protection he envisioned himself as offering. At any rate, Treadwell is the one who could have eventually used some protection: at the end of his thirteenth summer amongst the grizzlies, he and his his female companion were killed and eaten by one of his ursine "friends."

Now, I know is seems like I just ruined the end of the film for you, but they reveal this fact within the first five minutes, honest. And foreknowledge of Treadwell's fate is essential to fully appreciate the bizarre quality of his on-air soliloquies. Even while he reminds the hypothetical viewer about the dangers of grizzly fraternization, he seems naively unaware of it himself. Treadwell's ultimate goal -- both in living with the bears, and in filming his exploits -- seems to be the casting of himself as the protagonist in a Jack London short story or a novel serialized in Boy's Life. At times he seems less like a man living amongst bears as a man in the middle of a "Living Amongst Bears: The Roleplaying Game" campaign.

Herzog editorializes quite a bit in this film -- something I had been warned about in advanced and thought I'd hate, but actually didn't mind. A few times he even goes so far as to say "Here I disagree with Treadwell" and offers his own opinion in the voiceover, and I did feel that these rare instances did cross the line. But as one of my companions remarked, "all documentarians have bias -- better that they state them openly than pretend they are objective," and I agree with her sentiment.

One thing that Herzog does exceptionally well in Grizzly Man is keep the character of Treadwell (and he does seem to be a character, albeit one of Treadwell's own making) from becoming stagnant. Several times in the film I thought, "well, I think I've seen all there is to see of this guy" moments before Herzog unveiled some new fact, included an interview, or spliced in a piece of footage that gave Treadwell a whole new dimension. Even as you're walking out of the theater, you're still not quite sure what to make of the guy.

Grizzly Man is one of the best documentaries I've seen; and, as I stated before, I like documentaries a lot, so that's saying something. And just a quick postscript for people who are hesitant to see this film because of the killing. There is no video footage of Treadwell's death, so you won't see it. There is an audiotape (Treadwell turned his camera on just before the attack but didn't have time to remove the lens cap), but Herzog declines to play that, either. At one point a coroner describes the audiotape, but he does so in a fairly clinical manner. There is one emotional scene in regards to the audiotape, but Treadwell's death is treated mostly as an ironic twist to his life, and is not, in itself, the focus of the film.

Posted on September 20, 2005 to Movies


Man, I heard about that film and I REALLY wanna see it, but I live in Pensacola (the land time forgot) and even our self proclaimed indi-cinema theater isn't showing it. I'm just hoping that I can eventualy get it at Block Buster, but I won't hold my breath. Maybe when I go back up to Atlanta for a vacation.

Posted by: Mark on September 20, 2005 6:48 PM

When I was reading this post I was reminded of an amazing film I saw a while back in the theater (and then again on DVD) called "Touching the Void". It's a documentary/re-enactment about a couple of mountain climbers in the Andes. I don't want to give anything away about it so I won't say more, but I highly recommend that you check it out. I'd be delighted to hear your opinion on it.

Posted by: Jonathan on September 20, 2005 7:43 PM

You should see other works by Herzog, and even the films about Herzog, ("Werner Herzog eats his Shoe", or "Burden of Dreams" both by Les Blank) who is quite a character unto himself. He is notorious for being so absolutely dedicated to his projects that he will risk his like and others to complete them. Famous for threatening Klaus Kinski with a gun during the shooting of "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" - or actually moving a steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, or walking 500 miles to visit with a dying film historian. He's the kind of crazy that those studying film can't get enough of...

Posted by: Marc on September 20, 2005 9:49 PM

man, i live in alaska, i remember when they found that guy all mauled and shit, it was all over the news. everyone was talking about what a dumbass he was for getting that close to grizzly bears.

Posted by: jibba on September 20, 2005 11:28 PM

For another "take" on someone deeply interested in bears, you should check out "Project Grizzly."
[disclosure: I used to work with the sound effects editor of PG, and the dialogue editor is a good friend]
Perhaps Treadwell should have been in contact with Troy Hurtubise...

Posted by: bud on September 21, 2005 8:49 AM

Thanks for the review...I was hoping there was something more of a reason to see this than morbid curiosity over the irony of him ultimately getting eaten by his "brothers." If it ever makes it here, we'll check it out.

Posted by: Belinda on September 21, 2005 9:17 AM

I remember watching Treadwell's Discovery Channel specials. (Back when he was still around) I remember thinking how crazy he must be. I will have to see this documentary. I've heard the "last recording".. so if you have the impulse to seek it out on the internet, don't. It is very disturbing, and I wish I hadn't heard it.

Posted by: Ann on September 21, 2005 9:47 AM

I'm a docujunkie too! I'll definately look it up when it hits the vijeemo store. Thanks for the review. I'm usually hesitant about new ones. Never know what kind of bull I'm gonna get shoved down my throat.

I want to add that awhile back I saw "The Devil's Playground" which I highly recommend. It's a documentary of the Amish "rite-of-passage/decision" called Rumspringa.

Posted by: Scott on September 21, 2005 12:17 PM

It's a little known fact that the original cut of March of the Penguins ended exactly the same way.

Posted by: kaf on September 21, 2005 5:44 PM

I've liked, if not loved, every Herzog movie I've seen so far (six of them) including this one.

I highly recommend another fairly recent Herzog documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly".

Posted by: Mr Charlie on September 22, 2005 12:49 AM

A great reveiw but I have to take issue with the following sentence:
"Even while he reminds the hypothetical viewer about the dangers of grizzly fraternization, he seems naively unaware of it himself."
The closing scene is very telling. Timothy has left a video camera on a tripod recording him walking up a river with two bears following him at heel. Timothy is trying to look very cool and relaxed but his head snapping back to look behind him and check their distance every 5 seconds is impossible to miss. He wanted to be one with the bears, and he believed that he was accepted, but deep down he knew he couldn't trust them. I imagine the guy watched Disney cartoons and believed that plants dance to music, but never tried as he knew he would be disappointed.

Posted by: Richard on September 22, 2005 4:45 AM

Herzog is such a prude. He should have played the tape.

Anyway, Treadwell got what he deserved for being an idiot and acting like Pee-Wee Herman Among the Bears.

Herzog has really gone down the tubes in recent decades. Aguirre: The Wrath of God (made in '72) was by far his best, and he's just gotten worse and worse from there, as is evidenced by Grizly Man. Pity.

Posted by: aaa on September 22, 2005 6:37 PM

For a more entertaining documentary about grizzlies - check out Project Grizzly, directed by Peter Lynch (1996)

It is well worth your time.

I feel I should add, not all Canadians are this insane.

Posted by: Amanda on September 23, 2005 9:22 AM

Matt, even ignoring Herzog's two incredible movies with Klaus Kinske (Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo), his work as a documentarian is impressive. As Mr. Charlie said, check out the, uhhh, life-affirming Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Posted by: Steve on September 29, 2005 6:15 AM

I used to think we were simpatico. After reading your review of Time Traveler's Wife and now this, I realize that I was wrong (although your game recommendations haven't mislead me, yet).

This movie was terribly boring. Herzog managed to take a bizarre character and make his life seem incredibly tedious. I get better entertainment for free at my Capitol Hill bus stop.

I lived in Alaska during the stay of Treadwell. Alaskans had no sympathy for him. (Much the same way they felt about the 'Jonathan Supertramp' idiot. ["Into the Wild," Krakauer].)

Posted by: Tina on September 30, 2005 3:12 PM