Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Grisly, man.

So I just saw the DVD of "Grizzly Man," the Werner Herzog documentary about a man, Timothy Treadwell, who had lived amongst the b'ars every summer for thirteen years. Then, one fine day, one of them up and et him. The movie contains a goodly amount of Treadwell's own film footage as well as post-mortem interviews with those who knew him.

The story is, I think, viewed as a tragedy of sorts, at least by some of the reviewers and probably by the director: one man's obsessive hubris leading to the inevitable fall. The crossing of boundaries man was not meant to cross: nature, red in tooth and claw, gets you in the end. Or at any rate, it got Treadwell. Or, at any rate, the bear part of it, got him.

And all of that was there, certainly. I gotta say, though, that by the end of it I was left with two thoughts that overshadowed all other impressions:

1) Go, bears!

2) GodDAM but the closet leads to some weird-ass places. And that ain't Narnia, neither.

No, okay, one shouldn't make these cynical, stereotyping assumptions. Just because the guy came off like Richard Simmons to the tenth power doing "Wild Kingdom" doesn't mean anything about his sexuality, of course. (or Simmons' either, for that matter; I seem to recall he's a straight fella himself, on the record). In fact, Treadwell goes out of his way to talk about how hard it is for him, with the ladies; and how it's so much easier for gay folks:

"You know, it's just Bing! Bing! Bing! - gay guys, no problem. They go to restrooms and truck stops and perform sex, it's like so easy for them and stuff."

He goes on to say that he always wished he were gay, Treadwell did, but, sigh, it just wasn't meant to be: he's straight straight straight, dammit. He loves the ladies. But they don't love him. That same sad song so familiar to all the other straight dudes out there. Good thing he has his animal friends, for consolation. Specifically, big, muscular, hairy, do-what-comes-nat'rally...bears. Who don't even need a restroom or a truck stop, let alone anyone's permission, to do their thing, be it sex or rasslin' or just plain takin' a dump. It's, like, so easy for them, and stuff. Bears, that is.

At any rate it didn't seem like he had trouble attracting women to share his life with him, Treadwell; in fact he had one girlfriend, Annie Huguenard, who shared his death. Did she, in fact, die for him? Well, she certainly died with him, which is pretty damn intimate, I'd say. No one seemed to know much about her, in the film; the speculation was that she could have made a run for it at the last, but didn't, which implies a heroism of sorts, I suppose. Personally I have no idea how I'd react if I were stuck in the middle of fucking nowhere with an extra-manic Richard Simmons and a shitload of bears, let alone what I'd do when one of the bears finally cashed in that all-you-can-eat-buffet coupon on my companion. I imagine I'd be too busy crapping myself and screaming to figure out an escape, but who the hell knows?

The real question, of course, is why on God's green earth does a nominally straight woman take up with Richard Simmons Gone Wild in the first place? According to the people who knew Huguenard, she was frightened of the bears, so it wasn't like she was completely at one with him in his amateur naturalist enthusiasm (and/or his insanity, depending on one's point of view and/or one's degree of charitability toward Treadwell).

Personally, I blame the patriarchy, (cough) for all of it. Socialization of women to take care of everyone but themselves, to play nice and not say "You want me to camp out where?! Screw you guys, I'm goin' home." Socialization of men so that it seems more acceptable, easier, somehow, to be a platonic bear-lover and eccentric martyr than to just do one's thing--in truck stops, or restrooms, or anyfuckingwhere but a protected campground full of projections of idealized love in the form of wild animals (who, as the director notes, frankly don't seem to see Treadwell as anything but a potential snack, ever, despite Treadwell's cutesy nicknames and protestations of deep psychic bonding with the critters).

And finally, there's the whole romanticization of innocence business, which I think is at the heart of Treadwell's trip. You know: humans are corrupt or too complicated or sinful, or something, so clearly the solution is to reject one's ties with the greater body of humanity. Turn away altogether, put all of one's needs onto Nature (with a capital N). Or--now extrapolating to others I think have taken versions of this trip, and perhaps for similar reasons--Michael Jackson, say--children. Or perhaps even aliens: witness the Heaven's Gate people, or at least their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Applewhite the idealist, Applewhite the gentle eccentric, Applewhite the guru, who was charismatic enough to find a number of other pure, shining, selfless souls to merge and go all the way to the Light with him. Would Huguenard have eaten the Nembutal-laced pudding if Treadwell had asked her, I wonder? At least it would've been a less painful way to go than being mauled and eaten alive.

Cases like these guys are fascinating because they take certain threads in the cultural zeitgeist to their logical, if extreme, ending. At any rate it's not at all hard to draw from the ah "traditional values" template, current American version(s), and conclude that there's something fundamentally wrong with us mere mortals. Something that needs fixing, or running away from. Maybe even killing.

And yet, for all of Treadwell's attempts to merge with the "animals," it's not at all clear that it ever occurs to him that humans are animals, too. And, by extension, that he, too, is already an animal, no more or less than the rest of us--and that that might actually be O.K.

By the way, this Slate review of the film is really good, and I agree with Edelstein's take, on the whole. (Corky St. Clair, yes! even more than Simmons)


rey said... made me feel really guilty for laughing so hard at some guy's death.

Catholicism triumphs again.

Your post is still funny, though.


belledame222 said...

Laughing wild amid severe'st woe. Obviously it's a horrible story. But...

and, too, I found Treadwell quite unsympathetic: deeply self-involved, bouts of abusiveness (even if mostly directed at the camera) alternating with what seemed to my jaundiced eye like calculating charm. I feel bad about what happened to him--and I get the strong impression that whatever that journey was started long before anything to do with actual bears--but I...yeah. Fuck, I'm just not nice, that's all, I guess.

Anonymous said...

I've been dying (ahem) to see this ever since it was reviewed at the festivals. Gotta get it on my Netflix. Actually I've got two Werner Herzog films sitting here that I need to watch first.

clindsay said...

Okay, this is weird. Treadwell was one of our authors at Big Ass Publishing Company, and we used to laugh at him a lot, because, well, he was just so HAPPY all the time. Then came the day when we got the phone call that he had been killed. And not only killed, but eaten. And that he'd gotten his girlfriend eaten as well. And we kind of stood around going "Huh. Well. Huh. Bummer." And then someone started the nervous giggle. You know the one - the giggle that happened to Mary Tyler Moore at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown. And pretty soon the ENTIRE department was laughing hysterically because this poor bastard and his girlfriend had gotten eaten by bears.

Some days I question my own sanity.

belledame222 said...

Was he like, happy joyful or more like happy manic?

Anonymous said...

Humans are indeed animals. And watching Treadwell was like watching a small sick forest creature that unfortunately made its way to the pavement of suburbia: lost, walking in circles, and vulnerable. I wish he hadn't been eaten, but I, too, must confess that his demise came as a bit of a relief. What other fate could there have been for him? I cringed during the footage where he decides to not only to go for a swim with a particularly grouchy grizzly, but also to give the giant a life-affirming tap as it left the water. And it's this impulse to do something that defies natural instinct that I find absolutely fascinating. In Treadwell’s case, was it illness, stupidity, or a type of freedom/escape/addiction that allowed this?

drublood said...

God, I am totally in love with you! When are you moving to austin to marry me? You are just the right amount of witty and cynical and optimistic all mixed together. Yum!

Veronica said...

It was definitely happy manic. Blondie the Bear Lover was a diagnosed Bi-Polar, I think.

The Subversive Librarian said...

I love this post. I'm glad I'm not the only one who cheers for the wildlife.

belledame222 said...

dru: *blush* *flutter*

belledame222 said...

anonymous: good question. hard to say, isn't it. Whatever it was, he was definitely not some forest childe/shaman, delicately attuned to the forces of nature--and I do believe that there are such people; he just wasn't one of 'em. I guess the simplest answer is: projection. The I-It connection (Martin Buber), otherwise known as the backwards connection (Patricia Evans).

I have this self-help-type book which I was actually going to use as a jumping off point for another post, called "Controlling People, by the aforementioned Evans. In it, the author talks about something she calls "the Teddy Illusion." Essentially, a small, lonely child who's not seen by anybody makes up an imaginary friend, in this case acted out by a cuddly Teddy bear. Kid play pretends that Teddy talks to him, says whatever he needs to hear, loves him unconditionally, never disagrees with him, and is always there for him. Kid grows up never really developing better emotional or social skills, except maybe in a superficial way that allows him to get a job, say hi to the neighbor, and so on. But no real intimacy. Teddy never really goes away; the fantasy love object changes in form but always remains with him.

Then one day, along comes a real live person, and the now grownup kid "falls in love with" him/her; except that instead of seeing the actual person in front of him, the damaged adult keeps right on seeing Teddy, the perfect fantasy love object. Until one day "Teddy" does or says something that breaks the illusion and reveals a flash of the actual person in a way that even the former lonely kid can't miss. It's too threatening; the projector will do or say anything to make "Teddy" come back, because anything else is seen as a sign of independence, which is seen as abandonment, which is seen as annihilation. It's this little transaction that Evans views as the root of all abusive relationships.

So I think that this is more or less what was probably happening here. The "Teddy Illusion." The only difference is, in this case, Teddy was an actual bear. Which has certain advantages, in that Teddy, unlike a human container for the illusion, can't actually talk back. Of course, the disadvantage is...well. Yeah.

Too bad he couldn't have developed a thing for bunnies or something instead...

fastlad said...

If you go down in the woods today, m'dear.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, sometimes I think that there are people who are so divorced from the reality of the natural world that when they decide that they want to know more about it, they egregiously overcompensate. It is in this way that they find out why we (as a species) developed things like goosedown parkas, butane lighters, toilet paper, antibiotics and the Remington Model 7 .308 bolt action.

Which is not to say that I think people should stay indoors, not at all. But y'know, bears are goddamn scary and dangerous. If this guy had tried to be big pals with a pod of alligators, I don't think anyone would be making a documentary about him longer than the ten minute blurb on the evening news.

Hugo said...

Can I say I hated this film? Not for Treadwell -- but for Herzog's judgmental, holier-than-thou, Teutonic righteousness. He despised Tim Treadwell, and did little to hide it.

I walked out of the theater shaking with anger. Treadwell's histrionics had nothing on Herzog's ego, which was bigger than any grizzly's appetite.

belledame222 said...

Yeah, I've heard similar comments. 'twas my first encounter with Herzog, though I'd been meaning to check out others of his films. It's quite possible he painted Treadwell as more two-dimensional than he was. I just had red flags going up from the actual footage of Treadwell alone, and I don't think context would've changed it much.

Anonymous said...

SO NICE to read something sensible, yet funny, written about Treadwell by someone not living here in Alaska. I mean, no one in Alaska (with a few notable exceptions) was in the least suprised he got eaten, they were just waiting to find out when it would take place. People did feel bad about Amie. That was pretty horrible. But most people in the lower e48 seem to think Alaskans have a sadistic attitude about him and his death. And that is not really fair. It is just that everyone up here lives in close proximity to bears, and almost everybody knows they are really NOT to be fooled with. If you respect wildlife, you leave it ALONE. Nobody likes a Malibu hippie freak coming up here and calling all of us poeachers, and pretending to have a god-given mission to save Alaskan bears from Alaskans. We have such huge and healthy population of brownies, grizzlies and blackies due to conservation measures taken by Alaskans, not because of a granola eating closet-case with a really warped sense of what bears want and need from humans. It was all about Tim, and what he wanted and needed from the bears, things that you just arent gonna get from real life bears, not if you are even pseudo-normal and living in reality.

dykotomy said...

BD you rawk so much. I saw the "doc" and at first i wanted Treadwill to be a bear whisperer but ended up feeling totally horrified by a beautiful illustration of a person suffering from bipolar or manic-depressive disorder and taking his "girlfriend" with 'im. And, I suspect she had her own issues and was on some kind of suicide mission...

belledame222 said...

It's funny; I was just talking to a former forester today who saw the movie; she basically felt the same way. Guy was messed up; the best way to show care for the grizzlies is to leave them the hell alone.

iacb said...

Coming to this particular post really late, but I saw this movie only a month ago. I largely agree with your take on Treadwell, BD.

Hugo said…

"Can I say I hated this film? Not for Treadwell -- but for Herzog's judgmental, holier-than-thou, Teutonic righteousness. He despised Tim Treadwell, and did little to hide it."

I actually think the film was quite balanced. In spite of the fact that Herzog quite openly disagrees in fundamental ways with Treadwell's view of Nature, he actually treats Treadwell with a great deal of sympathy, and treats the death of Treadwell and Amie as a tragedy rather than a come-upance.

(In fact, if you go to the website of Treadwell's group – – run now by one of his exes, you'd see that they're actually endorsing the movie. )

belledame222 said…

"Yeah, I've heard similar comments. 'twas my first encounter with Herzog, though I'd been meaning to check out others of his films. It's quite possible he painted Treadwell as more two-dimensional than he was. I just had red flags going up from the actual footage of Treadwell alone, and I don't think context would've changed it much."

Actually, its too bad you hadn't encountered a couple of other films by/about Herzog before seeing Grizzly Man – two in particular that are key to fully understanding where Herzog is coming from. First, Les Blank's "Burden of Dreams", in which Herzog gives this over-the-top monolog on The Horror of Nature – not to be missed. Second, "My Best Fiend", Herzog's documentary about Klaus Kinski, which had me laughing my ass off at the line in Grizzly Man – "I have seen this kind of madness on a film set before."

iacb said...

Should have checked Youtube before wrapping up that last post:

Herzog on Nature

Madness on a Film Set

Anonymous said...

well.... after watching this documentary and reading all the other posts... can you not draw a line between timothy's experiences and say a wild dog who found friends in moving cars?... A dog can only get away with chasing cars so long before something happens. It also seems logical enough that the dog may call a brown volvo Mr Chocolate.

Anonymous said...

Dear peoples, pleaz send more turists and bare researchers like Timothy.

tHank yoU,

- Mr. Chocolate

faustopheles said...

Interesting story (I haven't seen the movie). His living with the bears is a bit reminiscent of Diane Fossey, who lived with gorrillas and apparently died at the hands of poachers.

The real question, of course, is why on God's green earth does a nominally straight woman take up with Richard Simmons Gone Wild in the first place? says:

Amie first fell in love with Treadwell's book and eventually its author.

The crossing of boundaries man was not meant to cross: ...
It is worth noting that he spent 13 years with the bears before being killed and no person had been killed by bears in the park in 85 years so he wasn't necessarily being all that foolish, though he did some foolish things (like food in tent). The bear that killed him, #141 "Ollie, the big old grumpy bear" was "just a dirty rotten bear, that Tim didn't like anyway, and wanted to be friends with but never happened".
The salmon had stopped running, the berry harvest wasn't up to par, it was time to put on weight for hibernation, etc. Also, a smaller bear was killed and eaten that day. Cannibalism.
The bears didn't eat him until they had resorted to eating their own.

"Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you." (The Big Lebowski)

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belledame222 said...

You know, coming back to this post years later and rereading the comments, it occurs to me that Hugo's reaction is rather interesting considering the story that recently emerged about the girlfriend he almost managed to kill along with himself due to his own selfishness. Just saying to the ether.

i suppose at least suicide-and-take-you-with-me by bear has a bit more plausible deniability than turning on the gas.

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