catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 3 :: 2006.02.10 — 2006.02.25


The nature of humanity

In 2003, Timothy Treadwell and Amy Huguenard were mauled and partially (well, mostly) eaten by a grizzly bear in the Alaskan wilderness. For Treadwell, it was the end of a long stretch of summers living among the bears and documenting his experiences with the wild creatures of the park. Treadwell?s memory lives on in Grizzly Man, a Werner Herzog documentary that tries to explain Treadwell?s life and motivations through the adventurer?s own video footage.

All along, Herzog vacillates from intimacy with Treadwell to a more distant and critical perspective. Herzog openly confesses a difference in philosophy when it comes to nature. While Herzog sees nature as a clash of violent discordant forces, Treadwell seems to think of wilderness as harmonious, an Eden of innocence and simplicity away from the evils of humankind. Herzog acknowledges the playful innocence of Treadwell?s version of nature when a family of foxes seem to befriend the young man, but the director also includes the perspective of native Alaskans who think Treadwell disrespects animals by not keeping a proper distance.

Herzog points out that when Treadwell encounters the destruction of nature, he has trouble fitting such senselessness into his own schema. Treadwell is disturbed by male bears who kill their cubs to mate with the mother. He is angry when it does not rain for several weeks and the salmon-starved bears are forced to eat each other. When Treadwell meets a bear close-up, he stands his ground?bearlike?but then apologizes and whimpers ?I love you? apologetically as the bear moves off. Though Treadwell clearly knows the rules of survival in the wild, he is not comfortable with its harsh realities.

For Treadwell, wilderness is the teacher. When he is in his untouched, uncorrupted nature, he is the humble student who must obey the wisdom of the wild creatures. According to Treadwell, one must leave one?s humanity behind to truly understand the bears. In order to become a friend to nature one must live with the wild creatures on their own turf. In this setting one can leave the complexities of human relationships behind. In the wild, Treadwell claims to transcend the bureaucracy of human institutions such as the government and its Park Service which, according to Treadwell, must be fought against for the good of the bears. Man?s tools of civilization are ineffective when compared to the ways of untouched, uncorrupted nature, which is why Treadwell is learning to become one of the bears. He sets himself up as mediator between the bears and humanity. He alone is the only true protector, guardian and friend of the bears. This is what gives him a sense of meaning and purpose.

Treadwell?s own dramatic narration and explanations of what he?s doing out in the wilderness is the background for someone else?s story, though. Grizzly Man is Herzog?s film, after all. Herzog narrates over the images with his own interpretive stance, occasionally voicing his personal experiences as a film-maker in order to explain Treadwell?s actions. Interviews with Treadwell?s family and friends also guide Herzog?s analysis and discussions with Alaskan locals give the director a sense of how Treadwell?s work was perceived by outsiders. At times Herzog?s presence seems too heavy in the film, especially in an interview with Treadwell?s ex-girlfriend where Herzog listens on headphones to Treadwell?s last tape. The screams of Treadwell and Amy as they are attacked are heard only by Herzog who stops the tape midway through and says it ought to be destroyed. No one should hear this, he determines.

In another memorable scene, Herzog makes another principled executive decision and mutes one of Treadwell?s rants against the park service saying ?Now Treadwell crosses a line with the Park Service which we will not cross.? As Treadwell throws obscene gestures at the camera and curses the names of his perceived enemies, Herzog begins a monologue about how he has seen this madness before in his own experiences making films. It is the madness of an actor lashing out at the director on a film set or in a performance. But in this case the film-maker Treadwell has become an actor in his own drama, says Herzog. Treadwell is no longer making a film, Herzog argues; he is living out a conflict with civilization that is deeply American, going back to the writings of Thoreau and naturalist John Muir.

Herzog?s insightful analysis throughout the film builds up a trust that overcomes the occasional strangeness of his presence. Herzog brings deep issues to the surface so the film is not just a look at one man?s life but an opportunity to re-examine man?s relationship to nature, the forces behind the rise of environmentalism, the ideals of conservationism, the growing frustration with government in America and the restlessness of the human soul in its search for meaning and purpose. Herzog follows Treadwell?s go-west-young-man journey to the farthest reaches of America, the wilderness that has been both feared and held in romantic reverence throughout the nation?s history.

Herzog?s treatment of Treadwell?s life and death lays bare a long-standing split in American consciousness between civilization and wilderness, man and nature. The Calvinist idea that both civilization and wilderness are nature and that sin and redemption are present in both obviously did not survive the transition from Puritanism to the Enlightenment in America. Even today, the spirit captured in the writings of people like Voltaire and Rousseau haunts American thinking about nature. Treadwell is drawn to the wilderness wisdom of the bears, just as Europeans of the Enlightenment looked to the uncivilized ?noble savages? of South Africa and the Americas for guidance. Herzog unveils this spiritual heritage as well with Treadwell?s story.

Herzog does not try to hide this thoroughly modern division which drives Timothy Treadwell. Grizzly Man displays a conflicted person, a man who doesn?t want to be a man. In his attempts to capture the purity of nature beyond the corruptions of the human world, Treadwell manages only to bring his own brand of human tampering to the Alaskan refuge. Thinking he is helping nature, he invades the space of the animals who become too familiar with him, a danger to both Treadwell and the bears. Outside of human civilization and all its perceived evils, Treadwell morphs himself into a sacrificial superhero who is willing to give up his life, his humanity, to the non-human world for its benefit. Forsaking weapons, going against traditional human wisdom for handling animals in the wild, ignoring governmental regulations, he seeks to become one with?even one of?the bears and he boasts that his survival proves he is worthy to live in the bears? world. But his death reveals that Timothy Treadwell did not make a good bear. Without the size, strength, claws and teeth of a mature grizzly bear, Treadwell is of course no match in a bear-to-bear confrontation. As a man using human tools for defense and maintaining a safe distance from the bears in the first place, Treadwell could certainly have survived, but the sacrifice of his manhood is made complete in death.

Herzog sees in Treadwell?s tapes not a story about animals, but a look at the nature of human beings. Herzog finds meaning in Treadwell?s own search for meaning. Treadwell?s attempt to escape the trappings of humanity only reveals just how human he is, says Herzog. As a film about the meaning of human nature, Grizzly Man is not concerned with arguing the wrongness or rightness of Treadwell?s actions. Instead, the film examines the human struggle to find purpose in one?s life and in nature?wild or civilized. Herzog?s documentary is an attempt to give Treadwell?s life the meaning that Treadwell himself struggled so hard to find.

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