When March of the Penguins became a sleeper sensation this past summer, I was pretty thrilled, and not merely because the film itself is wonderful. Documentary hounds like myself often spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to convince people that, strictly as an entertainment option, a well-made doc can be preferable - more surprising, more emotionally engaging - than most Hollywood releases, and so the emergence of this little-penguins-that-could tale as a box-office bonanza was, for many of us, cause for celebration.My hope is that those who missed March of the Penguins during its summer run will now be catching up with the film on DVD, and may even be moved to seek out other docs they'd heard of yet were unable to see theatrically. (And if this applies to you - and I promise to stop pressing this issue soon - get your hands on Murderball as soon as humanly possible.)
However, some viewers, charmed by the heroic waddlers' lives of Antarctic struggle, might just be inspired to catch more nature documentaries after the great time they had with Penguins, and will find themselves taking home a copy of Werner Herzog's just-released Grizzly Man, intrigued by the DVD's lovely box cover of a grizzly bear loping through an Alaskan expanse. Which begs the question: Having seen the film, will these viewers ever watch another nature documentary in the same way again?
In the film's opening scene, we meet 46-year-old Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 summers living among and studying the habits of grizzlies in an Alaskan nature preserve. Treadwell, who appears to be as much an aspiring filmmaker as an environmentalist, sets up his shot with a moviemaker's eye - framing a seemingly relaxed grizzly in the far left of the shot while Treadwell himself speaks to the camera from the front right - and explains the dangers he faces. "If I show weakness," he says regarding his contact with the bears, "if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed. For once there is weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces."
And within minutes, Herzog's narration informs us - if we hadn't known before - that, in the fall of 2003, that's exactly what happened to Treadwell. And his girlfriend.
Grizzly Man, in other words, is less a nature doc than a don't-mess-with-nature doc, yet it has a scope that extends far beyond Treadwell's quest. It could even be argued that Herzog, here, isn't much interested in the grizzlies; he seems far more concerned with what Treadwell's experiences reveal about the man in particular than he is with any of Treadwell's accomplishments. In the end, Grizzly Man is less an exploration of nature than an exploration of human nature, and although it might disturb those looking for a Penguins-y good time, Herzog's film stands as one of the most powerful and altogether remarkable nonfiction achievements of the past several years. And it's entertaining as hell.
The success of any documentary, of course, rests with the footage amassed by its filmmakers, and to say that Herzog had a bevy of material to choose from would be an understatement; Treadwell - who spent nearly all of his summers in Alaska alone, with only the wildlife as company - shot more than a hundred hours' worth of film. (Grizzly Man combines Treadwell's Alaskan scenes and Herzog-led interviews of those who knew him.) And there are sights here that are quite literally jaw-dropping; Treadwell's early mano-a-mano with an approaching grizzly - who, to our shock, actually backs down from the environmentalist - has a nerve-racking, catch-your-breath immediacy. Although we are (blessedly) denied footage of Treadwell and his companion, Amie Huguenard, being killed, our knowledge of their eventual demise gives almost unbearable weight to the Alaskan footage. We watch every sequence between Treadwell and the bears in a state of exhiliration-laced dread, asking ourselves: Will this be the scene where Treadwell Goes Too Far and irrevocably disrupts his fragile bond with the grizzlies?
Portents of Treadwell's death seem to appear all throughout the film, yet who would have expected so many of them to come from Treadwell himself? In one extraordinary shot, Treadwell places the camera, and himself, in front of a particularly nefarious region, and says that unless a visitor is especially careful, "You will die here. You will fuckin' die here" - at which point Herzog reveals that this is exactly where Treadwell and Huguenard eventually perished. Over and over, Treadwell discusses the potential imminence of his death - even saying that, in terms of giving attention to his cause (that of protecting and preserving the bears' habitat), he might be of more use dead than alive - and Herzog uses Treadwell's accidental omniscience to explore the fascinating, resounding theme in his film: that an obsession of this magnitude can only result in the protagonist's death.
Herzog often interrupts the drama with verbal analyses of Grizzly Man's discovered footage - "Here, I do not agree with the filmmaker ... ," he says regarding one of Treadwell's more optimistic assertions - and often veers toward pomposity; with the director making pronouncements such as "He began to scrutinize his innermost being, his demons ... " and "The quest became a metaphor for the soul ... ," Grizzly Man sometimes feels like a first-rate doc combined with a lengthy thesis paper about the doc. Yet Herzog is shrewdly observant about how Treadwell's passion began to cross over into megalomania and even insanity, and he's attuned to how people's environment and even choice of careers begin to dictate their personality; interviewing (as a title card reads) "actor, close friend" Warren Queeney, it becomes clear - through Queeney's dramatic, vaguely false-sounding testimony - why Herzog credits him as an actor before listing him as a "close friend." (With friends like this, you think, it's no wonder Treadwell sought the company of grizzlies.) And Herzog is remarkably generous about giving credit where credit is due; in one particularly entertaining voice-over tirade, he lavishly, and rightfully, praises amateur-filmmaker Treadwell's compositions as being infinitely superior to that of most professional helmers.
Among the many deeply unsettling and exquisitely rendered moments in Grizzly Man, one, in particular, stands out: Treadwell using the camera as his own personal confessional, telling it - telling us - how, before he began this obsession that led to his death, he spent years suffering from a debilitating, alcohol-fueled depression. Trying in vain to hold back tears, Treadwell admits, "I had no life. Now I have a life." The irony is almost too much to stand, yet Herzog connects you so deeply to this man's quest - to Treadwell's search for a literally inhuman grace - that you can't turn away from the scene; for one heartbreaking moment, you understand an obsession that could conceivably lead to one's death. Grizzly Man might be, ostensibly, a kind of nature documentary, yet it's one of the most supremely human movies you're likely to encounter.