30 August 2005

Cheesy Film Review: Grizzly Man

I saw a great movie this week.

It's a documentary by Werner Herzog called Grizzly Man.

We've already established that a young girl getting
killed by a pet tiger on an ill-conceived school trip is
nothing less than a senseless tragedy.

But what about when a dimwitted adult decides to camp
out in the Alaskan wilderness to live among and "protect"
the native Grizzly Bear population -- and is eventually
killed and eaten by one of his furry pals?

That, my fellow cheese-lovers, is what's known as
Comedy Gold!

The dimwitted adult was a man named Timothy Treadwell.
Throw a rock in any direction on Melrose Avenue or Venice
Beach and you're almost guaranteed to hit a dude just like
him: easy-going, self-absorbed, poorly educated and
embarrassingly immature. Just imagine your average
reality show contestant and you'll get the idea.

Having failed to hit it big in Hollywood (he claims to have
been the second choice for Woody Harrelson's role on
Cheers) Treadwell decided to create his own reality show.
The premise: see how long someone can live among deadly
Grizzly Bears while pretending to be a wildlife expert, before
getting killed. The game lasted thirteen years, during which
(not surprisingly) Treadwell finally gained some celebrity.
He appeared on David Letterman's TV show where he
described the bears as mostly harmless "party animals."

But now that the party's over, the job of sorting through all
of Treadwell's footage and crafting a final film that does
justice to its quixotic hero has fallen in the lap of German
auteur, Werner Herzog.

Herzog, who also narrates the film with a voice not unlike
Dr. Strangelove, does a brilliant job picking the essential
moments: some obvious, some not-so-obvious. (One of the
coolest shots is when Treadwell momentarily walks out
of frame and the landscape is suddenly brought to life by
a gentle breeze -- you just have to see it to understand.)

Of course, there are plenty of amazing shots of the bears,
up close and personal. But since the audience already knows
how this story will end, even the scenes where Treadwell
keeps a safe distance from the massive animals have a
dreadful undertone. Despite all attempts to portray himself
as a real-life Dr. Doolittle who can communicate (or at least
"connect") with nature's creatures, the camera cuts through
all the psuedo-spiritual bullshit to reveal a much starker
reality: a deeply delusional narcissist who has no connection
whatsoever with a bunch of dispassionate, unsentimental
killer beasts that, under the right circumstances, wouldn't
think twice about making Treadwell their next meal.

Intercut with all this footage are recent interviews with friends,
relatives and various locals. Their opinions of Treadwell span
the range of love and admiration to "he got what he deserved."
But the most insightful comments come from an interview
with a Native American curator of the local Grizzly Bear
museum. Though he sympathized with Treadwell's
passionate love for these majestic creatures (seemingly
wanting to "become a bear" himself), living with these animals
and acclimating them to human contact was ultimately an act
of "disrespect" that endangered not only himself, but also
the very animals he was trying to protect.

And now, I'll address the questions that are bubbling
somewhere in the back of your mind: Was the fatal bear
attack captured on video? And is it included in the film?

Answers: Sort of, and no.

We are told that a camera was rolling with the lens cap still on
while the attack occurred, so there is audio but no video of the
attack. But Herzog wisely decides not to play this audio in his
film. Instead, it is described to us in excruciating detail by the
coroner who examined the bodies (unfortunately Treadwell's
girlfriend was a victim as well) after they were recovered from
inside the bear, which perhaps just as tragically, was put to
death too. In addition, the camera rests behind Herzog's
shoulder as he listens to the audio on headphones in the
home of one of Treadwell's friends. Herzog is obviously
shaken by the experience and after a speechless moment,
offers the following advice to the friend: "You must never
listen to this. Destroy it, or it will be the white elephant living
in your home for the rest of your life." By now, no actual audio
or video could surpass the gruesome scene vividly concocted
in our own imaginations.

But like most great films, Grizzly Man contains the perfect
blend of both tragedy and comedy. Throughout the interviews
with the eccentric Alaskan locals and during much of Treadwell's
on-camera pontifications, Herzog seems to almost dare the
audience to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Maybe I'm just a
heartless cynic, but I thought the whole thing was pretty damn
hilarious -- and so did audience I watched it with.

So, as we approach the merciful end of one of the most
sucktacular summer movie seasons ever, Grizzly Man
stands out as a rare treat: quality entertainment that
contains the unique power of real life rendered on film.

And the bears are cool too.