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Michelle Thomas

Published February 3rd, 2006 | by Michelle Thomas

Grizzly Man Review

Classification: PG Director: Werner Herzog Rating: 3/5

The Call of the Wild. Struggling into work, knocked off your feet by crazed shoppers after that sale bargain that will ‘change their lives’, we’ve all longed to downsize and set up a hobby farm and live a more ‘natural’ existence, surrounded by animals, peaceful and calm, getting up with the sun (I could happily hibernate right now, that’s for sure…) and going to bed with the sun and never, ever, ever, going into Tesco’s again.

Grizzly Man is the story of one such man – Timothy Treadwell, amateur naturalist and self-styled grizzly bear expert, who pretty much turned his back on civilisation and went to live with the bears. For 13 years Treadwell spent every summer in Alaska’s Katami National Park, in an area so heavily populated by grizzlies that it is known as The Grizzly Maze. In October 2003, Treadwell’s remains, along with those of his girlfriend, were discovered at their campsite. They had been mauled and partly eaten by a grizzly bear. Before he died, Treadwell spent much of his time filming the bears, and Werner Herzog has edited the film from 100 hours of Treadwell’s unique footage.

Treadwell was clearly a bit of an oddball and the film doesn’t shy away from this. Born in suburban New York, he moved across country to Los Angeles where he claimed to be Australian and had a history of drug and alcohol problems and run ins with the law. What is clear is that his connection with the bears changed his life. He founded an organisation called Grizzly People and toured the US, educating children and using his growing celebrity to spread the grizzly gospel. He underplayed the danger, claiming that his unique understanding of the bears minimised the risk, and that he had earned their ‘respect’.

Timothy Treadwell, it must be said, comes across as an egomaniac with an undiagnosed bipolar disorder. With his blond mop of hair in a ridiculous Plantagenet-style, Prince Valiant bob, his complete lack of respect or attempt at understanding the animals that he professed to love so much drove me into an incendiary rage. A few years ago there was some controversy about divers in sharkproof suits allowing great whites to come and bite them, as the animals lose their natural fear of humans. Treadwell seems to be absolutely oblivious to the idea of boundaries and is constantly poking at the grizzlies and foxes, and fatally ascribing human emotions to them. He does not as much share their environment as come swaggering into it, lord of all he surveys.

There is one scene where Treadwell sees a grizzly peacefully swimming, disturbing no-one, so of course he has to go and jump in the water with it, and tries to touch it, at which point it, not surprisingly, startles, jumps and gives him a hard stare. At best Treadwell is well meaning but a bit stupid. He claims to be studying the bears, but how? There seems to be no method to his madness, certainly no science, just a weird need to get as close to them as possible and then annoy them (‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ he meanders at one point). If I was a bear I’d have bitten his head off a lot sooner…

Technically, it’s a mixed bag. Most of Treadwell’s footage is shot with a hand-held camera and some of the whip-pans made me dizzy. There is some outstanding, beautiful footage of the bears, but as with March of the Penguins, the American lack of the kind of superlative nature documentaries made by the BBC’s Natural History Unit causes them to gush over this kind of thing more than perhaps we would. As a portrait of an environmentalist, it’s a disaster. Herzog, however, succeeds in getting under the skin of an obsessive and shows how, fatally, his hubris and romanticising of nature led to his (and his poor girlfriend’s) inevitable downfall. It says far far more about humans than it does about animals.


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