“I always cannot understand why girls don’t want to be with me for a long time,” says Timothy Treadwell, subject of the documentary Grizzly Man. “I have really a nice personality — I’m fun, I’m very, very good in the … umm, well, you’re not supposed to say that when you’re a guy, but I know I am, they know I am, and I don’t fight with them. I’m so passive, a bit of a patsy. Is that a turnoff to girls, to be a patsy?”
Depends on the girl, Tim. But let’s analyze some other possibilities. You sound effeminate, you’re scary-hyper sometimes, and — oh, yeah — you spend your free time hanging out in the wild with bears. A number of women are intimidated by large animals that kill people. In fact, Treadwell’s last girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, expressed her fear of bears many times. Yet when one eventually did attack, in October 2003, she wouldn’t leave her man behind. She was eaten along with him.
German director Werner Herzog came across a documentary project on Treadwell already in progress and volunteered himself as director; in the process, as he says in Grizzly Man‘s voice-over narration, he “discovered a film of human ecstasy and darkest inner turmoils.” Treadwell had filmed many of his expeditions into Alaska’s national parks to be with the bears, and there were more than 100 hours of footage to be viewed. It initially seems like standard-issue nature documentary stuff, but Herzog plays movie critic with it, analyzing the work the way a film-school professor might scrutinize Tarkovsky.
In life, Treadwell invoked extreme reactions in people, and he still does in death. Colleagues point to his work in schools, where he showed his nature films to kids, and to his attempts to raise awareness of the plight of bears. Right-wing hate letters read aloud on camera call for all environmentalists of Treadwell’s kind to be eaten by bears; others endorse a plan that would unleash bears on the students and faculty of Berkeley. A museum curator in Alaska opines, “It’s tragic because, yeah, he died.” Others speculate that, by habituating bears to his presence, Treadwell may have done more harm than good because bears need to be afraid of people for their own safety.
Herzog is not one to take an obvious or unambiguous stance on such a man. Instead he analyzes the composition of Treadwell’s shots, the spontaneity or lack thereof, the self-mythologizing at work, and the conflict of director versus star — though they are one and the same. Tales of Treadwell’s past emerge, painting him in an objectively unflattering light — he had problems with the law, was an alcoholic, masqueraded as an Australian orphan to try to get attention, was diagnosed bipolar but refused treatment. Bears became his surrogate addiction, and he gave up alcohol as a “promise” to them.
Treadwell was quite a personality, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a Hollywood biopic, possibly with Owen Wilson in the lead. Herzog is primarily interested in Treadwell the filmmaker, but you’ll likely be fascinated with him as a human being.