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The ultimate meaning of life is to embrace that which compels you to act in spite of fear.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Grizzly Man: a review

Last Friday I went to see the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, the story of Timothy Treadwell, the man who spent years filming himself with the grizzly bears of Alaska.

What a strange and compelling story. What a sad case of a man who felt so alienated from the community of humans that he chose to cross the line into the world of bears ... tempting death by camping in a dangerous location just prior to hibernation time, when some bears (often old ones) are hungry and desperate.

Treadwell (1957 - 2003) should've known better, because he had spent 13 summers with the Alaskan grizzlies. As surprising as the above mistake would seem for man apparently experienced with bears, what's even more surprising to me is that he managed to survive with them at all.

Born and raised in Long Island, N.Y., Treadwell had no experience with these massive ursines prior to his first trip to Alaska in the early 1990s. In fact, he had been, among other things, a struggling actor in Hollywood. When he failed to get the part of "Woody" on Cheers, the young man fell into a deep depression. He clung to rough company and spiralled out on alcohol and drugs. After a near-death overdose, he absolutely needed a new beginning.

Then, redemption offered itself in the form of Alaska. And that's how it began.

Herzog interviews those who knew the man, and uses lots of footage taken by Treadwell during his many expeditions -- missions, as he saw them, to save the bears from some faceless enemy. (The bears he was "protecting" actually lived on public land, which is already protected and, by anyone's standard, breathtakingly beautiful.)

When we see Treadwell speaking passionately to school children, to educate them about the bears, we can see a glimmer of reason and hope in the man's life.

However, as the film progresses it clearly shows us that Treadwell was desperately trying to protect himself from his own excesses and mood swings, for his sobriety was completely tied to his bizarre crusade. He wouldn't survive without this sense of purpose, he tells us, during one of the many unsettling and, at times, comical soliloquies, which he performs in a persona so effeminate that some might wonder if his professed difficulty with women was rooted in problems even deeper than his profound unhappiness.

While he had trouble finding lasting romance, he did manage to convince his girlfriend at the time to return to an area of thick bush after the summer of 2003. Strange bears had come into the area from the interior. Hungry bears, not the ones some claimed he treated as live Disney characters.

Treadwell and his girlfriend were both killed and eaten. Her death may be the greater tragedy, for she was there only to support a man who had deluded himself into believing his deathwish was a noble and spiritual calling.

That said, I couldn't help but feel sorry for Treadwell and the circumstances that drove him to despise what most of us call civilization. And yet he wasn't living according to the rules of the wild either. Not according to one local Inuit scholar, who points out that his people are very careful not to confuse human territory with bear territory.

For those who like to question the deeper aspects of human existence, I would highly recommend this film.

One thing is for sure. When I left the theatre, I wasn't thinking about bears. I could only wonder about us humans, our individual realities, and why one man would put himself in such great peril by behaving so contrary to the rules of two worlds -- the one he hated and the one he loved.

2 Comments:

Blogger vincentt said...

Interesting life of a human...

5:05 PM  
Blogger oakwriter said...

Absolutely.

11:15 AM  

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