Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

Reviews of the latest films.
Aug. 12 2005 4:50 PM

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man.

Click image to expand.
Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard in Alaska 

Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog's amazing documentary Grizzly Man (Lions Gate), was a manic but lovable whack-job who doggedly filmed and obsessively idealized the bears that would ultimately eat him (along with his poor girlfriend). As a protagonist, Treadwell could have been manufactured by Herzog, who made his reputation spinning sagas of mad dreamers determined to triumph over a nature that bit back, hard. The confluence of the drama-queen Treadwell, whose own footage of bears (and his histrionic self) is the core of the film, and Herzog, who provides passionate, searching, and helplessly hambone audio commentary, makes for quite an emotional roller-coaster ride. You don't know whether to celebrate or mock, to laugh or weep.

The nutty thing about Treadwell is that—for all the talk of his "acting like a bear"—he's a dead ringer for Corky St. Clair, the gay theater director played by Christopher Guest in Guest's Waiting for Guffman. There is the same self-dramatization ("I am a samurai warrior when challenged!"), the same wounded petulance, the same overflowing sentimentality: "I love you! I love you!... He's a big bear, yes he is." He is, indeed, a big bear—big enough to take off a man's head. Treadwell traveled to schools to preach the gospel of nature, appeared with David Letterman (who wondered aloud whether he'd pick up a paper one day and read that Treadwell had been eaten), and spoke of the danger to bears from poachers—although these bears live on a remote Alaskan nature preserve (a portion of which, where Treadwell was killed, is known as "the maze") and seem more likely to be shot with Instamatics than rifles.

Advertisement

If my tone is insufficiently respectful, it's only because Grizzly Man itself often plays like a Christopher Guest "mockumentary." (What's with the weirdly exhibitionistic coroner? Is he auditioning for CSI?) The movie is also informed by Herzog's irony. Although the director finds a kind of cinematic holiness in much of Treadwell's astonishingly beautiful bear footage (along with sequences that involve congenial and very cute foxes), he also quotes a Native American museum curator who speaks—credibly—of the boundary between bear and man that Eskimos for 7,000 years knew enough not to cross. The ultimate disrespect for the bears, he says, with faint contempt, is not to observe that line.

Grizzly Man has the tang of the famous chapter in Moby Dick, Melville's sardonic answer to the Transcendentalist movement, which produced Thoreau (and Whitman). You might sit astride a mast and feel your oneness with nature, Melville wrote, but fall into the sea and you're going to get eaten. For all his attention to his bears, for all his boasts that he was "on the precipice of death" and could be attacked at any moment, Treadwell didn't fully see nature. Reinventing himself after years as a down-and-out alcoholic, he clearly turned the bears into his version of the "higher power" fervently embraced by members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Was Treadwell suicidal? He often said that his life and cause might be looked at more seriously if he died in the wilderness, although the bear that ate him and his girlfriend was riddled with bullets by rangers before Treadwell had even been digested, and the chief lesson to draw from his story is to do the exact opposite of what he did--to keep one's distance from these huge predators. Parts of Grizzly Man are as bone-chilling as The Blair Witch Project—especially the footage from Treadwell's final days. After railing at humankind (was he bipolar?) and an altercation with an "obese" airport gate agent (what was that about?), he and his girlfriend returned to the maze at a time of year when most of the more tolerant bears were hibernating, and only the old and desperate-for-food ones remained.

Treadwell inadvertently recorded his own death (the lens cap was on, so he didn't film it), and Herzog shoots himself listening on headphones to the six minutes of screaming and Lord knows what else. He doesn't share the tape with us and tells Treadwell's ex-girlfriend to destroy it. You can respect the way Herzog handles that material and still roll your eyes at his theatrics. That's very much true of the whole film—and its larger-than-life subject. Too bad he wasn't larger than bears.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.

Brow Beat

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 7:13 PM Deadly Advice When it comes to Ebola, ignore American public opinion: It’s ignorant and misinformed about the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.