Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lessons from the Grizzly Man

Last year, Maty and I rented and watched a movie called "Grizzly Man." This is a documentary film directed by Werner Herzog that relates the life and death of one Timothy Treadwell.

Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man

Treadwell was an amateur environmentalist and grizzly enthusiast who worked as a waiter in the winter, then went to camp amongst the grizzly bears in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Treadwell, a failed actor, spent 13 summers living in close proximity with the grizzlies, ostensibly to study them and protect them. During that time, he video-taped much of his experience, of which tapes Werner Herzog makes great use in his moving and bemusing film.

As the film progresses, one witnesses incredible scenes of Treadwell approaching and touching bears, tapping a bear cub on the nose while the sow watches warily in the background, confronting bears that approach him. As I watched these scenes, some primal instinct was triggered in me, something that made me nearly paralyzed with dread. Treadwell seems blithely unaffected by any concern for survival, seems almost brazen in his death-defying antics.

Ultimately, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, are killed and eaten by one of the bears he so dearly loved. An audio recording of the attack survived, and, although it is not played during the film (thankfully) we learn that the attack lasted six eternal minutes and was as horrifying as one might imagine.
It is easy to dismiss Treadwell's death as the folly of a romantic fool, made all the more tragic because of the incidental death of Huguenard. (We learn from excerpts from Treadwell's diary that Huguenard expressed a fear of the bears and urged Treadwell to leave, at one point saying he was "hellbent on [his own] destruction.")

But, try as I might, I could not come to terms with Treadwell's death by writing him off as insane. He was certainly unbalanced, as any objective viewer will note from Treadwell's rants and his fairy-tale perception of nature. But there was a demon that haunted him. Huguenard's words ring true when Treadwell recounts his struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse.

In my own life, I have encountered persons, some of them dear friends, who have turned to drugs or alcohol or anorexia or sexual promiscuity as a means of expressing the contempt they have for themselves. (In the darker eras of my life, I've even practiced some of these vices myself.) It is tragic and horrifying to watch a person willfully destroy himself (or herself).

What a way to go!
And, it seems to me that this is the demon that destroyed Treadwell: at his core, he was a deeply unhappy person, who despised himself as a failure. Using his sincere love of bears, he found a creative method of destruction: suicide by bear, if you will. The fact that Treadwell's death leads to the deaths of two grizzlies when a team is sent to recover his remains serves to confirm his perception of himself and cement his fate to that of a failed human being.

I imagine that Treadwell saw the grizzlies as possessing all those traits he found lacking in himself: purity, nobility, strength, innocence. Truly, he is a tragic figure. Like the innumerable others who are compelled to destroy themselves, in the end, Treadwell didn't get what he deserved, but, heart-breakingly, he got what he was asking for.

A haunting, unforgettable film....I recommend it.


Shus li che dut nah (Spring Thunder) said...

Bravo! Great insight into how we manifest our injured human nature. Forgot about that movie - will be sure to get it soon, instead of stuff like "28 Weeks Later." Eugene and I watched that last night; it was terrifying! It was a great allegory for the death urge of this culture, which is the result of living with our injured nature. Also represented the manifestation of this death-urge in someplace, i dunno, IRAQ maybe?


sponge888 said...

Threat down, Bears #1!

Anonymous said...

judging from your photo a little dieting wouldn't hurt you a bit fuck you for mentioning eating disorders.

sphygmo said...

The only thing that left me wondering is how could he have grown up to be so self-destructive. I would've welcomed a clearer history of his childhood, via interviews of his childhood friends, or people who knew him growing up. That would've quelled the "why's" in my mind. In any case, I also found the film to be quite absorbing and horrifying at the same time. When Herzog uttered the provocatory statement: "I believe that the common denominator of the universe is chaos, hostility and murder," my initial urge was to yell "NO THAT IS NOT TRUE." After calming down, I realized that the line became exceedingly powerful when juxtaposed with Timothy's naivete, and that to a certain extent, it made sense. I personally do not like excessively pessimistic "art," but I think Herzog is not some miserable sad old fool (like Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby), and he brilliantly portrayed the suffering soul in Timothy. The film is not to be taken literally and is just meant to let us catch a glimpse of how people sometimes can self-destruct, and how it leaves a ripple effect on everyone around them, even as an audience of a "documentary." Herzog is all about humans, and I think his craft is beautiful in its own way. I would sometimes like him to do a special on happiness, though. :)

PS: Anonymous, why so hateful? I can't imagine how the mention of eating disorders can send you over the edge like that.