Grizzly Man

The story of Timothy Treadwell. Directed by Werner Herzog.

Transcript of the Darrouzet-Nardi book club

Dad: Anthony, have you seen Grizzly Man? Mom and Jeanette saw it last week, Chris and I last night. It was very interesting and rich on a number of levels, not least of which the issue of the power of the filmmaker to represent another's life project and bio in their (filmmaker's) light. We had a great discussion of it on several levels. We think that everyone would enjoy treating it as a “reading”.

 

Mom: I thought the movie was great and would like to see it again. Mainly I liked the footage Treadwell had shot; many of the interviews were lacking in substance.

What an egomaniac Treadwell was. Even though I usually can't stand people who are so full of themselves, his love of the bears won me over.

I found myself wondering if he did have some kind of rapport with the bears, or if they just thought he was defective as one of the interviewees suggested, and left him alone. Anyone have any ideas about that?

I don't think anyone else has come even close to the kind of contact he had. His ability to go in and live with the bears without weapons was an amazing contrast to everyone else out gunning for the bears at the drop of a hat. In a way they seemed more insane, or at least rabid, than he did. That scene when the guide was throwing rocks at the bears to get them to react for a photographer made me ill. I was going “Yay Treadwell” even though apparently the bears up there are not really in danger from poachers as Treadwell tried to get everyone to believe.

Well, he was a fraud, but a glorious one. That was one thing Herzog did that I liked; he showed Treadwell's deceptions, for example, how he made Huguenard (or whatever her name was) invisible in his footage, even though she was up there at least two summers. And Treadwell claimed to be all alone! Of course in a psychological sense I think he was completely alone. That may be how he was able to get so close to the bears; he was just decoupled from human consciousness at some level.

There have probably been people like Treadwell throughout history but they didn't have video cameras. Although he was a failed actor, he had learned enough to put together some amazing film. When the movie opened I thought we were seeing an actor because he was so well-groomed, and knowing how fast one deteriorates when camping, I couldn't imagine anyone out there in the bush looking so clean. But he must have thought all that through--he had his various costumes and his hair gel or whatever he used.

His parents did look a bit disconnected so maybe that was part of his problem. On the other hand, there was that brief bit about his mother and how they played animal games (or something like that; I've forgotten exactly). So he is an enigma.

Christopher had some thoughts about how Herzog highjacked Treadwell's story. In a way he did, but someone had to come in and make a commercial film to get the work known. I thought that in a way Treadwell's viewpoints came through even clearer when contrasted with Herzog's opinions. Herzog ended up sounding like the conventional predictable twentieth century cynic, while Treadwell's otherworldliness, while goofy, was touching, and ulimately more memorable.

 

Dad: I think we all really liked the movie, or Treadwell's story and his footage, even if each of us was not as pleased with what Herzog did with it. So we've got Treadwell, the bears, the story, the movie, the director. Each of these has its own story in this movie. I agree with Chris that using Don Edwards song “Coyotes” was a stroke of genius. We've both downloaded it already. But the way Herzog has Treadwell's pilot of those many years singing it at the end and adding “Treadwell's gone” to the list is one good way Herzog did celebrate Treadwell as an admirably different type of guy.

Treadwell was a fake on some levels yes, but I think those were relatively surface ones--okay, so he did make up the a whole fake identity. So what, so did Bob Dylan in his own way. Told people he was from New Mexico for a while. People do this a hell of lot more than one thinks, and in the old days people really did it more because there was no easy way to check on who was who. I think Treadwell was the genuine article of an authentic self-created persona. He just picked out something that nobody (on record, video anyway) has done and made that himself. (Though I agree with Bonnie that there have been other people across the ages like him in the sense of taking up so well with animals, turning their backs on humans.) So at least we have a great story of this one. I loved his lines in his footage where he says, “I didn't have a life, I didn't have anything, I was nothing. Now I have a life. This is my life!” (or something like that). He clearly had strong identity problems for quite awhile.

Okay, he did mislead in the footage about his girlfriend being there. But we don't know her side of the story either. In a good feminist postmodern re-doing of this tale, someone would tell the whole story of the last couple of seasons out there from her point of view. Maybe she didn't want to be in the videos. Maybe she didn't want her parents to know she was out there with this lovable kook. Ever think of that Master Werner?

Many of his soliloquies were truly fine--including the one about wishing he'd been born gay, but wasn't, so he just had to do as best he could as a non-alpha male. He also understood that stuff at some uncanny level--that whether you are an alpha male or not, there are times when you just have to project that, be that. His insisting that you have BE CONFIDENT with these bears was all part of that ethology he was enacting with the bears, but which in his life with people he had trouble projecting. Then again, since we saw him rehearsing some parts, who knows how many of these more interesting and folksy-profound monologues he tried over and over again. Doesn't matter much to me that he did.

Chris can bring up the several big things we discussed, virtually argued over after our screening, including the story line Herzog sets up where it seems that he made several bad mistakes that last time, going back after an emotional confrontation when “his” bears had gone on, out there in the maze with old hungry desperate ones, not listening to his girlfriend, etc. Mistake? Death wish?

I agree with Bonnie's take on how Herzog comes across as the serious philosophic existentialist who is not taken in by bears or people, and pronounces sternly on the way things really are, and that Treadwell was operating in loony-land or in false consciousness. But I think that Bonnie's point is well taken; Herzog plays that modernist great thinker-filmmaker role so predictably that it detracts from what he has to say about it all. But that does not gainsay the point Christopher was making to me, of how Herzog “read,” told the story of, Treadwell as he (Herzog) wanted to without giving much ground to alternative readings. In this day and age, one simply has to see a movie like this and be able to virtually re-Direct it oneself into alternative readings that are just as legitimate as the authorial ones. That is what I think Christopher was asking me to do. He eventually convinced me. Treadwell kept his role and “face” throughout the movie, showing himself only from the side and back (as did Treadwell's girlfriend) and only in the scene when he were listening to the audiotape of the final horrendous death struggle. I don't want to make fun of Herzog. I catch Christopher's problem with the film and his approach, but he's still a very creative courageous guy. And very productive. He's got something like 48 films to his credit, most of them in German. He stars as himself in one called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).

Herzog was carrying a lot of his own baggage into this: his great movies are “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” It would be fun to see these now to see afresh some of what attracted him to Treadwell's story in the first place. Of all directors--this was not Scorsese or Lucas or Spielberg--it was Werner Herzog representing these fantastic self-created people/anti-heroes or near-buffoons that he has been working on in his films for decades. He also participated in the making of a film of his making of Fitzcarraldo. Many critics liked it much better. It was a documentary of what a fantastic project it is to make a gargantuan movie in the wilds. It is called Burden of Dreams. Here is an interesting tidbit from an internet review of him and Fitzcarraldo:

While Herzog complains that Les Blank's documentary Burden Of Dreams was responsible for creating the notion that Herzog was a daredevil while filming Fitzcarraldo, almost everything Herzog says indicates Les Blank wasn't far off the mark. However, if Herzog hadn't been such a daredevil, it's doubtful that Fitzcarraldo would be such an enthralling experience. So it seems that Les Blanks had "done" Werner his way many years earlier, so Werner is used to this way that Director's have with their subjects. It had happened to him.

What to say about the Bears: What glorious footage. The closest I've come to the kind of thing Treadwell was doing was trying to persuade Duncan [our crazy but lovable Gordon Setter] to put down my remote control, and have him look me in the eye and growl menacingly. He and I went through a few rounds with me trying to “establish dominance.” I never succeeded.

Bonnie was also onto a good point about how Treadwell was after all an actor--failed yes, and interestingly just barely bested (maybe) by another male in competition for a key role--that of the goofy blonde bartender in Cheers, which went to Woody Harrelson instead. Harrelson is just that much more of a square-jawed, macho man behind his aw-chucks to win the part, to give the Assistant Bartender more of sexy edge. I think Treadwell might have done fine in that role.

He did keep himself looking pretty damn good out there and we saw no footage of how he did that. But we did see him shooting scenes over and over again--I think not only becuase he wanted to get them right but because that's what movie makers do. He was in a way, acting out the role of filmmaker and star on his own, in his own world with the bears, after not getting to what he thought he wanted in Hollywood.

Of course for some of that, he was actually shooting footage to use on his school-project stuff. I think it was downright angelic of him that he really did not take money for that. He was some kind of Grizzly Bear witness and Johnny Appleseed.

Treadwell was doing this--going out there--for thirteen years!! That speaks loads to his dedication to that person he choose to become. It was not a fly-by-night, three- to five-year stunt. This guy lived out there until early middle age. And it was then that he did not seem to know what to do with his persona and all he was doing/learning. Not part of any discipline or organization, he was not in a good position to become the Jane Goodale of grizzlies.

He truly was out of sorts with our life down here in cityville. The “Coyotes” lyrics were perfect here. Like many of his friends and neighbors up in Alaska: Out of place and century. The whole of the next week, whenever Chris and I were faced with some silly, stupid, time-consuming, consciousness-wasting and rotting interaction about some administrative or bureaucratic thing, or just the inanities of driving, we'd say, “That's it, I've had it, I'm going back with the bears.”

 

Chris: Grizzly Man certainly turned out to be more than I'd planned. Originally I figured it'd be a Discovery Channel-type production releasing Treadwell's footage to showcase the amazing bears. That played only a minor role. I think every time Herzog chose to show Treadwell's footage, it also helped define Treadwell--with a couple possible exceptions like the fighting males.

Before I begin my discussion of Herzog and the film, I will say that in retrospect I am partially pleased that Herzog made the film the way he did. At least in the context that it can be so provocative and easily discussed. Had a director cut out the discussions of Treadwell and his person we'd be left just in awe of the footage. Herzog instead set out to study Treadwell and certainly did that--one of the most important things he narrated was that studying Treadwell's footage was less a study of animal nature and more a study of human nature.

Two specific criticisms stick out in my mind this late after the lengthy discussion Dad and I had in the car ride home and then continued in Half Moon Bay. The first is that Herzog hijacked Treadwell's footage and presented him, the bears, and humans, in a fully contradictory manner to what I think Treadwell would have wanted and believed. The second complaint is a much more broad complaint about the premiums society places on values and how it limits species growth.

Regarding the first criticism, I felt Herzog betrayed Treadwell. Herzog presented Treadwell's views on his excursions, those of his friends, and then trumped them with narrator's discretion. After giving a factual recount of Treadwell's death right at the beginning of the film, Herzog showed a lot of Treadwell's footage. Just him being himself. Here we saw some of the best bear footage and Treadwell at his best--goofy, remarkable, and intimate. About two thirds of the way through the movie, Herzog said something casting Treadwell's character in doubt, something that struck me as quite a leap of judgement considering what we'd be shown. After that, Herzog berated Treadwell on a number of counts, most of which I thought were unfair. Not necessarily untrue, but unfair. Very near the end, I thought Herzog idiotically contested Treadwell's feeling of connection with the bears. The line involved not seeing any sort of friendship in the eyes of the bears, but rather food. Now here is where I may differ from Treadwell and certainly from Herzog. That statement missed entirely what Treadwell was about in his quest. It showed an orthodox and conventional lack of tolerance for who Treadwell was. If Herzog wasn't impressed or intrigued by finding value from how Treadwell lived, he should have let it be. Instead he sounded curmudgeonly and callous to others' choices through his criticisms. The feeling I had at the end of the film was “well I could listen to Treadwell, but he was eaten by bears.” That feeling upset me more than anything else in the film and led ultimately to my second more broad complaint.

Treadwell may not have wanted to be eaten, per se, but he wasn't exactly bothered by the possibility. Many times throughout the film he said things to the effect that “if I don't come back, it's what I wanted.” And to be honest, I believe him. He wasn't suicidal but he was willing to take a risk in order to fulfill himself. And if that's how he chose to be, then that's fine by me. Humans are too meddlesome and critical of difference. I know this isn't the first time somebody realized this, but it's certainly a prime example. The articles made such a hullaballoo about Treadwell's fatal mistake and his egregious lack of judgement. I'm not convinced that's what happened. Treadwell may have made a mistake if one assumes that the person in question holds self-preservation as the ultimate priority. And I agree this is normally a safe assumption and need not normally even be stated. But Treadwell wasn't normal--on anyone's account: friends, investigators, journalists, Herzog or I. So in this case the assumption cannot stand without scrutiny. If you're putting such a premium on preservation, then Treadwell made thirteen years of mistakes. Going in too late or whatever is purely hindsight that (a) could not have been predicted necessarily and (b) possibly irrelavant. By irrelavant I mean that he probably made decisions early in the thirteen years--not camping in the open, going to the Grizzly Maze at a different time of the year, bringing certain types of equipment and interacting at varying proximities--that each could have been that fatal mistake that appears so obvious to us now. In summary, society puts too high a premium on convention. Celebration of difference has always been hard for us to accept as a species. We constantly push ourselves towards this goal because many people think it is an admirable achievement. Treadwell isn't a saint, but he lived in a manner that shows the extremeties of human spirit and just on the merit of providing us as a culture with a new extremity in a certain direction his life should be celebrated, not tiresomely and banally criticised as an example of human deficiency.

That was my main pitch. Here are a couple other things I thought about during the film:

Treadwell's close friend (the girl who got the watch, his one-time girlfriend) co-produced the film which lends credibility to Herzog's treatment.

Regarding the fakeness of Treadwell, I think Dad has it right by pointing to Dylan and to anyone who has ever occupied a persona different from a previous more “real” expression of oneself. One of Treadwell's friends made a comment regarding the possible decietfulness of Treadwell involving cows and them paying attention. I stay in his camp regarding this issue.

In discussing the girl that Treadwell brought with him to the mountains, there seems to be a sense of blame placed upon Treadwell regarding her death. While tragic, I can't help but think that she chose to accompany Treadwell and that as an adult, ultimately had to look out for herself. I don't want to sound coarse like one of the rangers did--I do sincerely think it a tragedy--but Treadwell didn't force her to go with him, although perhaps he verbally persuaded or something. I think many people fell into a trap of blaming Treadwell because as Dad mentioned the girl was so absent from the film, articles, and pretty much everything associated with Treadwell, and after such a bizarre event we humans have to square up the corners, so to speek. In this case by assigning blame to Treadwell for the incident.

After re-reading Mom's input, I think that she might be right in saying that Treadwell's points came through more clearly after Herzog contrasted them.

Finishing the movie with Coyotes was truly genius. Rarely are songs, especially songs with sung lyrics, used so effectively in films.

 

Mom: Christopher made a lot of really good points about the movie and made me think some more about it.

Reading Christopher's message, I realize that I like the way Herzog exposed Treadwell's subterfuges because I didn't have to have that uneasy “Is this guy putting me on?” feeling that I would have had if I had just seen Treadwell's footage. Obviously he's a kook. Herzog exposes the exact dimensions of his kookiness and manipulation and then you can relax and look at what's left--which is a lot. I may be over-sensitive to hype and manipulation but there are clearly a lot of missing pieces if you just look at Treadwell himself. So rather than betraying Treadwell, I thought Herzog showcased him pretty well.

As Christopher said, he comes across as goofy, remarkable and intimate. That sums Treadwell up pretty well. I think some of that credit goes to Herzog.

I agree with Christopher's point about Treadwell not being suicidal but at the same time understanding the real risks he was taking and realizing they were not inconsiderable. Treadwell made an existential decision and he came out on top for thirteen years.

 

Anthony: To me, the great thing about Grizzly Man is that we cannot simply say that Timothy Treadwell messed with nature and paid the price. That's the David Letterman sound-bite version of the story, and that's maybe the version that Werner Herzog wanted us to see. But Treadwell's story was quite remarkable and had a hidden logic to it. Mom is correct that “Herzog ended up sounding like the conventional predictable 20th century cynic, while Treadwell's otherworldliness, while goofy, was touching, and ultimately more memorable.” Herzog found very little to like about Treadwell besides Treadwell's sense of filmmaking, but I thought that Treadwell's decision to live with the bears, and even the way he interacted with them were, while extremely unusual, and possibly crazy, worthy of my respect. Treadwell went to live with the bears for a reason that made sense to him and for him. In Treadwell, I saw a broken and disappointed man who turned around and picked himself back up and did something with his life that can only be described as extraordinary. Dad pointed out one of the most important scenes in the movie: “where he says, 'I didn't have a life, I didn't have anything, I was nothing. Now I have a life. This is my life!'”

Some comments on Herzog's direction

Mom wrote that “many of the interviews were lacking in substance.” Some of the interviews were indeed lacking in substance, like the one in which Werner interviews the Alaskan native, who seemed like he was in there for purposes of political correctness. Other interviews, however, were just poorly done. I got the feeling that Herzog was failing utterly to put his interviewees at ease as a good interviewer would do. In good news magazines and documentaries, we often see regular people who sound just fine because the interviewer asks good questions and makes them feel comfortable. The worst example in Grizzly Man was the interview of the coroner, who had some really important information but came off seeming basically like a creepy lunatic. I felt bad for the guy. Another example is where Werner asks Treadwell's ex-girlfriend if she feels like a widow, which is a really awkward and out-of-the-blue question to ask somebody who is already under emotional stress. Werner should have stuck to easy questions that don't conjure up confusing feelings, questions where people can just tell their story and not have to untie their knotted emotions.

In response to Chris, I don't think Herzog “betrayed” Treadwell since he never knew Treadwell in the first place. A biographer is under no obligation to glorify his subject; in fact I think glorification is considered bad form among historians. Also, I think Chris may have misinterpreted that last part with the bears: Herzog was talking about the starving bear--not about Treadwell--when he discussed the hungry detached look. That bear really did look that way as compared to the others in the film. These are small points though and they are not to say that I agreed with Herzog's portrayal of Treadwell.

One bit of Herzog's analysis that was absolutely correct was when he compared Treadwell to Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Though those two individuals were more eloquent than Treadwell, I believe that there is a remarkably similar psychology among them, and I would further predict that there would be some striking similarities if they had taped themselves in the woods! Instead of grizzly bears, Muir tended to gravitate toward the much less dangerous plant life. One of my favorite Muir quotes goes: “It is not easy to keep in with the camp cloud while such plant people are standing preaching by the wayside.” That's Treadwell-style-nutty in its own way.

The wildness of wild grizzly bears

I have spent time alone in the backcountry and have found it a very lonely and sometimes terrifying experience. Few people can enjoy isolating themselves the way Treadwell did, and practically no one who can also interact with dangerous animals the way Treadwell did. Mom had wondered if he had some kind of “rapport with the bears or if they just thought he was defective as one of the interviewees suggested.” First, I don't think the bears could have known how deviant Treadwell was among humans; these bears barely ever saw people and I don't think a bear would be able to tell a weird person from a normal person (sometimes I can't either...). Second, I'm not sure I'd call it rapport; I think Treadwell just knew how to handle them. I think an animal trainer would say the same thing. Animals are in many ways less complicated than people and it's easier to learn the ins and outs of their basic behaviors. Treadwell did understand the bears, but I don't think the bears thought he was special. I actually came out of this movie realizing that grizzly bears are actually a lot less dangerous than I previously thought, given that one knows how to handle them. I would have thought that yelling and smacking a grizzly bear on the nose would cause it to get angry and eat you--instead it backed off! The only bear that caused him a problem was the old, messed-up, desperate bear. If Treadwell had simply known to avoid those bears, he could have kept on doing what he was doing.

Why did Treadwell die?

Treadwell went back late in his thirteenth season, one last time, and this resulted in his death. Was his decision to go back simply a mistake that was obvious in retrospect? Did Treadwell have a death wish? Both of these have been suggested in our thread, but I think they are incorrect. A mistake implies that Treadwell simply didn't realize how dangerous going back was, which was not true; we saw him just days before his death ranting about how incredibly dangerous it was out there. (This is when he tells us that he is the longest weapons-free visitor to these bears.) I also doubt seriously that Treadwell had a death wish. If Treadwell were really suicidal, it would not have taken him thirteen years to die. Allow me to suggest a different psychological explanation for why Treadwell died:

Treadwell had fooled himself into thinking he was invulnerable. This was ultimately incorrect, but strangely, and this is one of the strangest parts of the story: it was almost correct--he was out there for thirteen years! Chris said that Treadwell wasn't bothered by the possibility of dying, but I doubt that too. Most everyone fears their own death and I don't think Treadwell was an exception. I think that when he really thought about the possibility of being eaten by bears, it probably did bother him. It's the same as a car accident: I am very bothered when I think what might happen to me in a car accident, but I don't generally worry about it because it seems so unlikely (which it is). After thirteen years, Treadwell decided that a bear attack was pretty unlikely. This is the same psychology that led to Roy of Siegfried and Roy being dragged off stage by one of his tigers.

I agree strongly with Chris's assertion that Treadwell was weighing his options and making a rational decision about his life, as all of us do. What was rational for Treadwell would not be rational for most everyone else, but Treadwell knew he had to take this risk to enjoy his life. Similarly, we risk our lives by driving on the freeway (except Mom) because there are certain things we just wouldn't be able to do if we did not drive on the freeway. I bet Treadwell was a lot more cautious during his first years. As I noted above, it is tremendously revealing when Treadwell explains that being with the bears turned his life around and drew him out of the despair of alcoholism.

Is Treadwell culpable for his actions?

Chris wrote, “Treadwell isn't a saint, but he lived in a manner that shows the extremities of human spirit and just on the merit of providing us as a culture with a new extremity in a certain direction his life should be celebrated, not tiresomely and banally criticized as an example of human deficiency.” I agree with this assertion and I think it is one of the best analyses in our thread thus far. I want to extend this assertion by pointing out that agreeing with it relies on knowing whether or not Treadwell caused significant damage to others by his actions. It would be hard to admire him if we truly felt that he harmed other people and/or the bears.

The most obvious thing to hold Treadwell responsible for, and what several interviewees in the movie did blame him for, was the death of his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Countering this assertion though, Chris argued that she was responsible for her own safety. Once again, I agree with Chris. The only counter-argument to her being responsible for herself would be that Treadwell may have been manipulative or coercive. Treadwell could be seen as the David Koresh type, as the persuasive “messiah” that makes people do horrible things they wouldn't do themselves. This seems unlikely given Treadwell's personality, but there's no way to know for sure what happened without talking to the Huguenard, and unfortunately we can't do that. Treadwell was clearly a little off his rocker and probably every one of Huguenard's friends told her as much. If, say, she was killed and Treadwell was not, Treadwell could not possibly have been convicted of manslaughter or negligence or anything of that sort since indeed this girl could think for herself. It would be a simple case in a criminal court. And furthermore, I don't think he'd be convicted in a civil court for emotional damages either. Huguenard simply had too much autonomy for this to be Treadwell's fault. Maybe she had fallen in love with him and was making irrational decisions based on her feelings for him, but that's one of the harder lessons of life that all humans are charged with learning: love makes you irrational; don't completely trust yourself if you are in love.

What about the bears? Did Treadwell do any damage to them? Treadwell was violating park regulations, but the park regulations are set up mostly to protect people, not bears. Even in the case where interaction with ignorant visitors creates “problem bears” that the park service then has to kill, that is more of a problem for the park service than for the bear population. The bear population is robust and generally unthreatened as explained by the wildlife biologist. This is despite what the Alaskan native who worked at the museum said; the Alaskan native was, I think, more angry that Treadwell violated their customs than worried about real harm coming to the bears. Thus, it is difficult to blame Treadwell for bringing harm to the bears. I think that his effect on the bears, as implied by the wildlife biologist, was more or less minimal. Now, if everyone did what Treadwell did, then we'd have a problem, but I don't think that will be much of a problem given the frequency of Treadwell types in the population. (Though there could be copycats; I wonder if there are.)

Finally, Treadwell, or, the legacy of Treadwell, might be held culpable for causing emotional stress to his friends and relatives by his own gory death. His ex-girlfriend seemed the most damaged, but I had the feeling that her feelings were mixed up not just in his death, but also in her romantic relations with Treadwell. I did feel bad for this woman; what a rotten experience to have to be so close to. And Werner may not have helped... Treadwell's parents seemed eerily detached, but still it must have taken some emotional toll on them. Even given these potential damages, I can't help thinking that the emotional turmoil that Treadwell caused by dying may have been outweighed by how happy the bears made Treadwell during his lifetime, a happiness he surely spread to others around him. People can't generally be held blameworthy for the pain caused by their own death, except in certain cases of suicide, but as I explained above, Treadwell was not suicidal. So once again, I can't bring myself to hold Treadwell culpable for his actions.

If I were the park service, and I knew what Treadwell was doing, I would have stopped him immediately. As I explained above, it would be for my own sake, not for the bears. Nobody wants to have to shoot rogue grizzly bears with people inside of them. The Park Service will certainly not let this happen again if they can help it. But since they did not stop him, Treadwell stayed invisible and did what he had to do. He left us an incredible story, and I can't blame him.

 

Mom: I just happened to find the book Grizzly Maze by an Alaskan writer when I took Jeanette and her friend to the library today. I'm not sure it's a great book but it has some nice quotes from Treadwell and interesting factual material. Seeing the quotes in written form has convinced me that Treadwell was a kind of natural poet. I noticed this subliminally when seeing the film, but the visual experience distracted me from thinking more about the language. The book quotes Treadwell talking to one of the bears: “Hulk, how can I help you if you want to hurt me? You are the champion, but I'll be yours if you let me live.” The first sentence has great rhythm and the second one strikes the word champion like an anvil--the only long word in the “poem”, and a powerful one. The other words are all one syllable, easy words a child could understand, where champion alludes to mature accomplishment and power. The speech recalls a valentine, a kind of monstrous valentine to a wild animal capable of tearing the speaker apart. And the alliteration! This sounds like a half-baked English Ph.D. dissertation but I guess Treadwell brings out the craziness in all of us. I won't go so far as to say Treadwell's poetry was what the bears were responding to. Anthony is probably right: under normal circumstances, they just leave people alone and they can be psyched out and handled.

On the other hand, there was that guy recently attacked in Yellowstone and the bear was not starving or deranged that I know of. And in Peter Matthiesen's book about cranes (has everyone read that, it's great!) there was a Japanese photographer who insisted on sleeping on the ground in grizzly territory in an outpost in Russia, and he was eaten the first night. The others slept up on “bear platforms.” So Treadwell did seem to have some impressive animal handler skills.

As to the sanity or insanity of surrounding yourself with bears, it seems about the same as climbing high mountains. I have read that a significant number of those mountaineers end up dead. The odds of a mistake are huge. People usually don't call them suicidal. And getting out on the freeway is definitely insane, given the high rates of death and disability. Yet driving is considered completely normal. Treadwell did express his fear from time to time as Christopher pointed out. I think he was well aware of the danger but he could not resist the deep connection he had made to the bears--they really were his life. I think it's likely he would have ended up dead far sooner as a drunk driver (and/or possibly killing others in accident) or a victim of alcoholism. That may have put the bear danger in perspective for him, as he was quite aware of his own weaknesses.

I agree with Anthony that Herzog was a terrible interviewer. He's a director, he sees things his way; those kinds of people are not adept at listening. They can listen for the dramatic, the filmable, but they don't have the patience to sit and listen until something heartfelt comes out of an ordinary person, nor do they know how to question such people. Modern film is a medium of fast movement, of the visceral; it's not given to introspection.

That Muir quote was great, but what did he mean by “camp cloud”? I'm sure Muir was in the same class as Treadwell; he just had a different way of going about things. Jeanette is doing a class report on him. From what I understand he would get irate at people who did not love nature the way he did. I just found out he spent time in Alaska and loved it.

I think we all agree that Huguenard was responsible for her own actions and her death was not Treadwell's fault. She was an adult (and, I might add, not a “girl” anymore than Treadwell was a “boy”).

Jewel was kind of an enigma. She was not very articulate and between that and Herzog's bad interviewing, I never got a feel for what motivated her. She must have really helped Treadwell. The book has quite a bit on her so maybe I'll learn more (I just started reading it.)

One outcome of the movie will probably be lots more trips to Alaska. I'm trying to convince Dad to go on a cruise that has bear viewing (it's too expensive for the whole family and is probably too expensive even for Dad and me).

 

Jeanette: I agree with a lot of what Anthony said, most importantly that I don't think the bears thought he was special in any way, they'd have no way of knowing. I think he just knew how to handle them, like Anthony said. It actually makes perfect sense that the bears would back down if you slap them and scare them, there's hardly any mammals that get angered and eat you if you act like their superior (including humans!) Also, I just wanted to comment that I definitely did notice when he asked her if she thought she was a widow. In fact I was wondering at the time what I would have said to a person in that situation. And I also think that the car analogy was a good one. It seemed like that was probably what he was thinking. I was wondering how he began communicating with the bear world. Did he start by going camping and seeing bears from a distance and gradually get closer because they were so cool? Or did he have a close encounter with a bear and realize he could handle it? I also just wanted to tell everyone an interesting thing Mom pointed out. Remember how when we were on vacation the ranger said that dogs antagonize the bears and keep them away? Could it be that Treadwell realized that the bears stayed away from foxes and used them to guard him while he was sleeping and not able to intimidate the bears? He did refer to the foxes as “guarding his den”. I actually enjoyed the fox aspect of the movie too. I could really tell where dogs came from.

 

Mom: Jeanette's email is a good example of the rest of the family's “inattentional blindness,” that is, focusing on one thing, and not paying attention to others. She was the only one who didn't forget the fox! There's actually quite a bit of fox footage in the film, and the fox was even named Timmy (although I read that in the book and don't remember if it was in the movie).

 

Dad: Thanks Jeanette for your posting--especially for reminding us about the foxes! They were clearly an important part of Tim's world out there. He was very close to them, especially the one, and I bet they did in fact help protect him.

Bonnie's reading of Treadwell as a having a poetic consciousness is also very acute.

Anthony, yours was thorough on the points and I concur with most thought not all. I do think you are on to something about Treadwell perhaps growing slowly into a sense of invulnerability. (That happens with the big-time race car drivers, for another example, like the big star (Earnhardt) who was killed in a race accident a few years ago and had driven to glory many years before the fatal mistake (not even his own apparently) in a sport that is probably as dangerous an activity as what Treadwell was engaging in.

I think that Christopher is fully justified in calling Herzog on his reading of Treadwell--that's what the dialogue and critique of biographer's work is often about. The author is entitled to his view, and yet must remain open to critique and alternative readings. And Bonnie's point that it is better to have a strong explicit view that does not romanticize the person as a hero is usually preferable to the hero worship treatment that leaves you wondering.

I enjoyed everyone's postings a great deal. I concur with most of what everyone has said. I don't see many of the points raised as contradictory, or excluding of one or another view in most cases (save a few). It sure helped me to enjoy the film all that much more, starting with Christopher's very distinct sensations from mine as we came out of the theatre.

Treadwell was a truly self-discovered, self-made person in his early adulthood after disappointment and a floating sense of himself. Regardless of his degree of kookiness or difficulties on some planes of supposed normalcy, he found an admirable, loving way forward. He is a testimony to the broad latitude of human experience and regard for this world we live in and share with these other beings.

Before long now, we've got to move on to Toole's Confederacy of Dunces. I am nearly done, and probably the last to finish it, unless Anthony, you are still working on it. From Tim Treadwell to Ignatius Reilly ...from one loveable kook to another...

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