Timothy Treadwell is the subject of Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Grizzly Man . Treadwell spent 13 summers running free as a child with the grizzlies on the Alaskan peninsula, in what he called "The Grizzly Maze," videotaping the bears and himself. Late in the final season, an old bear – named by the park rangers bear #141 – couldn’t find enough salmon. So he ate Treadwell and his girlfriend instead. Whether Treadwell got what he deserved is what you’re going to be talking about as you exit this fascinating film.
Treadwell was a handsome and athletic, but otherwise unremarkable, child of a blue-collar, Midwestern family. He moved to California and became a blonde surfer dude with a phony past. But then he invented a new persona: protector of the grizzlies. "I will die for them," he says, "but not by their claws and paws." Herzog points out that the bears live on a federally protected reserve, and didn’t need saving. But Treadwell was a man on a mission, following orders he gave himself.
Treadwell got a charge from the danger, but deeply believed the animals could never hurt him if he was brave and stood his ground. We wonder: how could he be so naïve? At one point, he is talking to us about a surly bear he calls The Grinch. "If I turn around too much, she’ll bite me," he says, and sure enough, The Grinch is creeping up behind him. "Don’t do that," Treadwell admonishes the bear, in his reedy, John Denver voice. "I love you. I love you." He is scolding a child. The cruelty of the wild didn’t fit his idealized worldview.
Treadwell seems at times to be hosting a children’s show about bears. He does multiple takes, perfecting his improvised script. But alone in the wilderness, Treadwell begins to turn to his camera as a confessional. He tearfully describes a bankrupt life of drugs and drinking, redeemed by the bears. He complains of his failures with women, protesting that he is not gay while gesturing like a drag queen. His listing emotions topple into paranoid rages against a God he doesn’t believe in, and against the people’s world, where he never found a moment’s peace.
"I have seen this madness before on a film set," Herzog narrates. He is thinking of Klaus Kinsky, the lunatic star of five of Herzog’s fiction films. Herzog took Kinsky up the Amazon, and used his rampages to photograph a fragmenting soul laid bare. Herzog always employs his cool intelligence to blur the line between fiction and fact, reality and madness. He does this, he says, to pass through chaos into what he calls "ecstatic truth". In this moving study of a tortured man, he has certainly found truth – and the meaning in Tim Treadwell’s death.
Grizzly Man is playing at Castleton Arts in Indianapolis. Consider making the drive; it may not come to Bloomington. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.