WERNER HERZOG rarely met a person, tribe or distant land he couldn't transform into a mesmerizing movie -- fictional or documentary. At their best, his films are intense visions of new worlds, literal or spiritual.
"Grizzly Man" is no exception, a small masterpiece of a documentary that takes us into the heart of a complex darkness: the mysterious land of Alaska, the world of grizzly bears and, most significantly, the soul of Timothy Treadwell, a man who tried to break down the atavistic borders between man and beast, and failed. After spending 13 summers with his beloved grizzlies, Treadwell (along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard) was killed and devoured by a bear in October 2003.
Treadwell, who considered himself a wildlife activist, was many other things, too: a lothario; a surfer; a failed TV actor; a serial makeover man, who, at one point, reinvented himself to "be" Australian; and a recovering addict, who considered bears to be a sort of magnificent distraction from his destructive inner demons. But it wasn't enough for the forty-something Treadwell to be "friends" with his bears. He had to live in harmony with them. He had to be able to stand close to them, facing them down when they invaded his space, talking to them in a sort of soothing, high-pitched tone.
"It's okay," he tells one aggressive bear, as if he is a sort of "Wild Kingdom" Mr. Rogers. "You're the boss. Nice job."
Treadwell even gave the bears names, such as Mr. Chocolate and Rowdy the Bear.
He also left behind an extraordinary gift for humankind: 100 hours of video recordings of his time with the bears over his last five summers. Herzog took the footage and edited it into this feature-length film, co-produced by Lions Gate and the Discovery Channel. With his own crew, Herzog revisited the site of Treadwell's death (in Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve) and spent time with some of the people in Treadwell's inner circle, including former girlfriend Jewel Palovak (also one of the film's producers), his parents and even Willy Fulton, the pilot who dropped Treadwell off and picked him up every summer.
The result is an extraordinarily moving portrait of a man, a sort of illiterate artist, untrained as a filmmaker but powered by his own conviction and personal vision. "Grizzly Man" is also about us and the wild impulses that we listen, and don't listen, to. We are connected with animals but also separate from them. Treadwell thought there was more fluidity between both worlds. He saw friends among these magnificent but ferocious beasts who feed just as casually on salmon as they do their own cubs or humans; it just depends on how hungry they are and what's available. By trying to create an intimacy that never really existed, Treadwell became guilty of an Icarus-like hubris. And he paid the price.
Treadwell even seems to know what is coming.
"If I show weakness," he says to his own camera, "I may be hurt. I may be killed. They may chop me into bits and pieces. I'm dead."
Though Herzog pays tribute to Treadwell as a filmmaker, his film is anything but a hagiography. There is a powerful argument running through the movie, an ideological clash between Treadwell's environmental harmonizing and Herzog's view of the universe as an eternal catastrophe of destruction and chaos. It is a strange debate that rages beyond the grave, between the living artist and a dead man who sported a strange Prince Valiant haircut. But the synthesis between them is a source of enormous grace and power. It's a portrait not only of a fascinating man but also of human nature in general. By gazing at the seemingly distant horizon that is Treadwell's life, we are brought disconcertingly closer to our own.
GRIZZLY MAN (R, 103 minutes) -- Contains disturbing, macabre material and obscenity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, Cinema Arts Fairfax and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington.