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GRIZZLY MAN (director: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger; editor: Joe Bini; music: Richard Thompson; cast: Timothy Treadwell, Amie Huguenard, Franc G. Fallico (Medical Examiner); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Erik Nelson; Lions Gate; 2005)
“If grizzly man Timothy didn’t die, the film most likely would not have been made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

‘The things we most desire will kill us if we can’t face reality’ might be the theme of Werner Herzog (“Fitzcarraldo”/”Where the Green Ants Dream”/”Aguirre: The Wrath Of God”), veteran German filmmaker of three decades, in his new documentary. It offers a startling account of a well-meaning but not too insightful grizzly activist named Timothy Treadwell, a narcissistic wacko self-styled environmentalist (no formal training). Timothy spent 13 summers (documented by his own video-tapes of upwards of 100 hours of movie footage taken over the course of his last five “expeditions.”) among the grizzly bears in Katmai National Park and Reserve in Alaska before he and his girlfriend Amie were mauled to death in 2003. If grizzly man Timothy didn’t die, the film most likely would not have been made.

The film tends to be more a study of a crazed obsessive man and his desire to escape the world by becoming a bear than it was a study of the grizzlies. The filmmaker gets carried away with the dark side of his self-absorbed human subject and uses his performance-acting in front of the camera to probe what made him such a fucked-up dude. There’s grim comedy induced from conversations with his friends, family, the coroner and wild life experts, who either uncritically sympathize with him or wonder if his befriending the bears actually did more harm than good. In any case, we learn he was a failed actor who found his way from a middle-class secure home on Long Island to be a free-spirit in Southern California and eventually found in 1990 that life was bearable only when he was in the wilds among bears and foxes.

Timothy thought he could defy nature by standing near the bears and sweet talking them without any weapons or means of defending himself. The lesson he learned was that eventually a bear will eat him, as his big dopey American smile and friendly chatter could only go so far. As he says on tape, the bears probably didn’t kill him because they thought he was a crazy person.

For most of the film Herzog lets Timothy tell his own story by not editing his long rants, delivered to the camera as if he were starring in a movie (in some monologues he appears to be having a nervous breakdown). Though somewhat amusing at first, Timothy soon became quite a tiresome character and didn’t have much to say that wasn’t an advertisement for himself. I’m sure some right-wingers who have always maintained that all environmentalists couldn’t be trusted because they were nutty–could point their finger at Timothy and say see what I mean. It was that kind of film. The enjoyment was from seeing such a unique real-life weirdo in action, the beautiful wilderness photography and Herzog’s absurd take on his subject that cut Timothy slack for his obsession, unbridled fearless passion, relentless drive to follow impossible dreams and commitment to filmmaking, but took digs at him for ultimately insulting the bears by trying to be one of them and having a wrong-headed sentimental view about nature being only good. Because of Herzog’s assured filmmaking ability, the film remains engrossing rather than exploitative. He might be the only filmmaker capable of making such a balanced film that points out his subject is not all there while at the same time applauding him for going after his beastly dream.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”