Thursday, February 28, 2008

Deserving Herzog

"I'm in love with my animal friends. I'm in love with my animal friends. In love with my animal friends. I'm very, very troubled. It's very emotional. It's probably not cool even looking like this. I'm so in love with them, and they're so fucked over, which so sucks."

"If I show weakness, I'm dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces--I'm dead. So far, I persevere. I persevere."

--quotes from Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is the most provocative documentary I've seen in years. Certainly it's the most beautiful "nature film" I know of. That it's sparked so much debate over its fanatical subject, Timothy Treadwell, raising arguments about whether he was "admirable" or "dead wrong" in his methods, as well as debate about whether the director was right or wrong to present him as mentally unsound--all this seems inevitable but beside the point. The film is a masterpiece for a simple reason: it narrates a story that is tragic in a classical sense. With Grizzly Man Herzog has offered us a kind of environmental tragedy; Treadwell is a modern example of the ancient tragic hero.

Some clarification might be called for, as these words tragedy and hero risk being misunderstood. I use them in their academic sense--or at least in the sense they're used in courses on Greek drama: that of of Sophocles and Euripides. To say that Treadwell's story is a tragedy doesn't mean merely that it is sad he died young. Many people his age die every day and their deaths are not "tragedies" in the rigorous sense. Likewise if I say Treadwell is a hero, I don't want to imply that he should be taken as a role model or emulated. That's not the point at all.

The tragic hero in classical drama is a figure who sticks to his guns in difficult circumstances, one who has both charisma and pride, but who also has a tragic flaw, one that will finally bring him down. In its original Greek sense this flaw, called hamartia, meant quite literally missing the mark. Often the flaw is obvious as hubris, an overweening confidence in the rightness of one's ways, a refusal to recognize what others, what the audience for example, can see clearly: that the protagonist's blindness will be his undoing, that there is already a machinery in motion that will destroy him.

Timothy Treadwell fits this model to a tee. One admires his courage and love of nature: one admires his bubbly monologues and anti-establishment stance. Treadwell is the nature lover beyond nature lovers. His shock of golden hair under the golden sun and his confidence that he can reach out and touch wild grizzlies make him a nearly mythical figure. That he is so close to the nature he loves, that he speaks human language to us almost as if from within that natural realm--it nearly convinces us that his dream is possible: that one might enter the world of wild animals as a kind of Garden of Eden if only one's heart is pure and one's purpose strong and steadfast. Treadwell's presence on camera is compelling: we listen to him and sympathize with him; we nearly agree with him that what he is doing is possible, if only because we watch him doing it on film. What makes Herzog's film a tragedy is that while we watch Treadwell and are nearly convinced by him, we also know that he is getting closer and closer to the day he will be dismembered and eaten by one of these "friends" he is out to protect.

Aristotle, the first great writer on drama, theorizes that tragedy is an important art because the audience, while watching the drama, is cleansed "through pity and fear." (Poetics 6.2) The spectator feels pity for the protagonist and fear that the same fate or a similar could become his own. Meanwhile tragic irony is working its heavy magic. Tragic irony has little to do with our current use of the term irony: instead it indicates the gap between what the audience knows and what the hero knows. In a tragedy, the spectator knows where the protagonist is headed even as he struts on stage and boasts of his skill in solving his dilemmas. The protagonist is headed towards a death made certain by his own actions. Grimly, the spectator knows this but cannot help the hero avert it.

This too fits the movement and power of Grizzly Man. We watch Treadwell expatiate on how only he has figured out how to live with the grizzlies, how only he has the strength and mastery to live among and even protect them, all the while knowing that this man speaking so animatedly will soon become one of their meals.

Treadwell spoke of the bears as his "friends," and gives them human names. But friends may not be the right word for Treadwell's perception of them. Lovers may almost be better. There are moments in the film, as when he marvels over the beauty of one female bear's just dropped excrement, that show an unmistakable perversity. Not that Treadwell was possessed by any merely localized fetish: no, his perversion was all-encompassing. His fetish, if that is the right word, was the whole landscape the bears occupied and everything about them: about the bears and foxes and even the bumblebees on the Alaskan flowers. And it was certainly the all-encompassing nature of Treadwell's perverse desire to be unified with this world that made him face the possibility of being eaten up by it almost as a kind of ecstatic martyrdom.
They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces--I'm dead.
Why does Treadwell speak so graphically of his possible undoing? Is he merely boasting of his bravery? One can see there is more to it than that. Treadwell is giddily describing the machinery of his own movement toward the bears; describing the extreme limit this movement might take; and he is doing so with grim pleasure.

In his own narrations, Herzog occasionally states bluntly where he disagrees with Treadwell. The two most striking moments are when he distances himself from Treadwell's rant against the park authorities and when he tells what he sees in the roving eyes of the last grizzly Treadwell filmed, perhaps the same bear that killed both him and his girlfriend. Treadwell saw in those eyes both perfection and a kind of companionship. Herzog saw something quite different:
What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.
I agree entirely with Herzog in his implicit criticism of Treadwell's vision. Yet I do not think Herzog is looking down on Treadwell, or that he shows any disrespect in such remarks. That Treadwell was to some degree mentally unsound is obvious. But so what? As Herzog well knows, all of us, to some degree, are mentally unsound. Herzog, a great and thoughtful artist, admires the beauty of Treadwell's vision even as he recognizes how Treadwell was blinded by this beauty. This is part of the nearly religious drama of Herzog's film: a drama the director masterfully brings out but one already there in the movement of his subject's life. Treadwell was certainly unsound in his methods, but to say so is not to scorn him. The uncanniness of his vision of harmony in the face of these terrifying beasts raises his story to another level.

It was said by two of the men interviewed in the film and it has been repeated elsewhere that Treadwell more or less "deserved what he got," but that it was unfortunate he had to "take his girlfriend with him." The attempt to separate Treadwell and Amie Huguenard in death is understandable--her journal entries reveal that she herself argued with him over his fanaticism--but I feel she more than he should carry the ultimate responsibility for her own life. Amie put herself in the maze with him in the first place. Certainly she had not been duped into thinking the bears were harmless. Is it possible that Treadwell filmed himself speaking of the dangers of his life with the bears--"Every day I'm living on the precipice"--and yet told Amie nothing of this danger, that he told her instead: "Don't worry--I've got them all trained like pets"? It doesn't seem likely. To some degree Amie was sharing in the vision that undid both of them. One should give her enough autonomy to be responsible for her own decisions.

One may speculate on what led Treadwell to his vision. Did the fact of his having suffered from alcoholism push him to despise "merely human" society? It seems at least possible. But finally, any explanation of the origin of Treadwell's deadly desire to identify with grizzlies is not quite commensurate with the strange beauty of this desire: the fact that it existed and the fact that it is, in such a haunting way, recorded. Treadwell himself is the main director of the film we watch him in. But Herzog has brought to the material a master tragedian's touch.

Roger Ebert finishes his review of Grizzly Man as follows:
"I will protect these bears with my last breath," Treadwell says. After he and Amie become the first and only people to be killed by bears in the park, the bear that is guilty is shot dead. His watch, still ticking, is found on his severed arm. I have a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism, whatever you want to call it, but here is a man who managed to get himself and his girlfriend eaten, and you know what? He deserves Werner Herzog.
The point Ebert is trying to make is that Treadwell, because of his foolish humanizing of bears, deserves to become the subject of a director famous for portraying obsessed men who've fallen prey to impossible dreams. He deserves also to be subjected to Herzog's starker vision of nature as "overwhelming indifference" and "a half-bored interest in food." In other words, Ebert thinks Treadwell is given a dressing down in Herzog's film. I agree with Ebert that the naturalist "deserves Werner Herzog." But I'd frame the statement another way: it is not Treadwell's foolishness--"got eaten"--but the mad grandeur of his vision that deserved Herzog's attention. A smaller character than Treadwell would not have deserved it. I'd insist that the human experience of the world and nature is richer because of Treadwell's work. Many have died for much less than this.

Check Herzog's Grizzly Man at


Anonymous said...

I beg to differ. Amie was not a stupid city girl. She grew up in Ohio, knowing the power of the grizzly.

She loved Treadwell with all her heart and therefore trusted him. He did not cause her death in any way.

Another thing that bothered me, you don't imply that Treadwell should be a role model? I am pretty much not surprised. I would be grateful that there are people out there that want to change the world and save the animals before we demolish them completely.

I disagree with your blog entirely.

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary on Treadwell. I try to be more generous and kind when considering him, but the word "idiot" always seems to come to the front of my mind. While I think his heart was in the right place. he was a mess mentally, and a total egomaniac. Yes, it may be true that he had a passion for the bears and for nature, but he also had a deep seated need to prove that HE was something special. A hero? Heck no. He made no sacrifices. Hell, I'd love to spend half the year camping and playing with my camera.

Truth is, the bears in Katmai are the last bears that need protecting. The fact that he survived as long as he did only has to do with how much these bears will tolerate. But I think he had himself totally fooled, I think his ego was so overblown and pumped up from years of not having anything bad happen - that he felt that he was invincible, that the bears would never hurt him. And I think he had Amy feeling that way as well, or at least that is what Amie WANTED to believe. I question her judgment as much as I do Treadwell's. I know she had a masters degree - but what was it in her that attracted her to him? Seems to me he's the type of guy that any mentally healthy female wouldn't touch with a 100 foot pole.

Anyway, I've read quite a bit on Treadwell, and just wanted to let you know I enjoyed your take on him.