Deserving Herzog

 

by Eric Mader

 

 

"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 a kind of environmental tragedy; Treadwell is a modern example of the ancient tragic hero.

 

These words tragedy and hero are liable to be misunderstood.  Here 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.  If I say that Treadwell's story is a tragedy I don't mean merely to say that it is sad he died so young.  Many people his age die every day and their deaths are not tragedies in the sense I mean.  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, the flaw that will finally bring him down.  In its original Greek sense this flaw, called hamartia, means 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 his love of nature: one admires his bubbly monologues and anti-establishment stance.  He 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 is 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 know that he is getting closer and closer to the day he will be eaten by these huge "friends" of his. 

 

Aristotle, the first great writer on drama, theorizes that tragedy is a powerful art because the audience, while watching the drama, is cleansed "through pity and fear."  (Poetics 6.2)  The audience member feels pity for the protagonist and fear that the same fate or a similar could become his own.  All the while too 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 protagonist knows.  In the case of 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 reach out to 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.  And all the while we know inside that soon this man speaking so animatedly will 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 a stark and 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 criticisms 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 that was 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 deserves Herzog's artistic 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.

 

December, 2006

 

 

 

Check Herzog's *Grizzly Man* at Amazon.com

 

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