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Grizzly Man (5/10)

by Tony Medley

Biographical documentaries can stand or fall on the quality of their subjects. If the subjects are worthy they can be interesting. If not, forget it. This is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who appears to me to be certifiably insane.

Treadwell was a person who abandoned civilization to live with Alaskan grizzly bears. He films himself with bears in the background. What he says is not profound or interesting or meaningful. He’s not a naturalist. We don’t learn one thing about the bears and he seems to have no understanding of them.

There are only a few people interviewed; one being his former girl friend, Jewel Palovak, who is the person most often on camera. That’s not surprising since she controlled the rights to his archives and has a co-producer credit. There is an embarrassing interview with Treadwell’s parents. They are sitting stiffly, preening that they are being interviewed for a movie, without a hint of sorrow that their son is dead.

Oh, yeah, I guess I neglected to mention that Treadwell was killed by a bear, along with a girl friend, Amie Huguenard.

Director Werner Herzog clumsily puts this together, using mostly Treadwell’s films and tells it backwards and then forwards. He tells about Treadwell’s death and then shows lots of clips from the films Treadwell made, interspersing with interviews, mostly with Palovak, ending with Treadwell’s demise.

The clips that Treadwell made are mostly him ranting and raving in front of the camera with bears in the background. One time he exhorts the deity to bring rain and his exhortations are answered with a deluge that almost destroys his tent. It could have been funny, but Herzog doesn’t have that kind of talent.

Herzog narrates the film and makes a point of saying that there is no picture of Amie’s face. He even shows two short snippets of film in which Amie appears and emphasizes that in neither can we see her face. However, one need only go to the internet to see a picture of the two of them sitting on the pontoon of a seaplane in Alaska, both full face. If Herzog wanted to show what Amie looked like, why didn’t he simply use this picture? Interestingly, the copyright on the picture is Lions Gate Films, the producer of the movie!  Apparently Herzog wanted to insert some mystery into his long, boring film and imply that nobody knows what Amie looks like. This film needs something, but dishonesty is not it.

Why Treadwell is the subject of a filmed documentary is a puzzle. Clearly he’s no expert on bears. Here’s part of an interview Elisabeth Sherwin conducted with him in 1999:

Treadwell lets you know right away that he’s not a scientist and that his life with bears comes from his heart, not his head. Still, I asked him if his hours and hours of on-site observation had added anything to bear science.

"Well," he said, "I’ve observed the social culture of grizzly bears, their hierarchy and their recognition of that hierarchy. I’ve seen one bear, Taffy, use a stick in a crude tool-like fashion to scratch her back. And, hmmm. What are some bear myths? Well, it’s true that dominant males do sometimes kill cubs but it’s overstated and blown out of proportion. There’s no reason or advantage for it, the female will not then mate with the male. Oh, and bears do run downhill, very fast. Never run from a bear. They can be ferocious, dangerous animals but they are also shy, gentle giants."

I realized I was asking Treadwell the wrong question. He’s not the guy to ask about the science of grizzlies,…

The film has some terribly self-serving shots. Like one of Treadwell seemingly devastated that a male has killed a young bear cub. Treadwell cries and says, “I love you.” Of course, the camera is running and he set it up and made sure everything was properly framed before he let the tears flow. A big clue about Treadwell’s motivation is that Herzog includes information that Treadwell had tried out for the part of the bartender on the TV series “Cheers,” only to be beat out by Woody Harrelson. Horribly disappointed, that’s when he decided to go live with bears. After several years he made sure he had camera and film with him. Seems like he was a frustrated actor and this was his way to get in front of the camera. Many of his soliloquies are discomfortingly egotistical.

But Treadwell is not the only person guilty of staging self-serving scenes. Herzog has a shot of him, Herzog, listening to the audio tape of the deadly attack in the presence of Palovak. Apparently we are meant to believe that this is the first time he’s heard it, a premise I find difficult to accept. Common sense dictates that Herzog had already heard the tape and staged this scene for some ulterior motive. After listening, he says that under no circumstances will he include the tape in the film and tells her, further, that she should destroy it. He also describes what he hears and says that Treadwell tells Amie to save herself while he’s being killed by the bear. We have to take this on faith because, consistent with what he told Palovak, he does not include any of the audio in the film. However, Alaska trooper Chris Hill, who heard the tape, in an interview with AP writer Rachel D’Oro, said, "They're both screaming, she's telling him to play dead, then it changes to fighting back. He asks her to hit the bear. There's so much noise going on. I don't know what's him and what might be an animal.” Hill says nothing about hearing Treadwell tell Amie to save herself. In fact, what he says about Treadwell imploring Amie to “hit the bear,” indicates just the contrary, that Treadwell was asking her to risk her life to save him. Another contemporary article by Craig Medred of the Anchorage Daily News states that “Among the last words Timothy Treadwell uttered to his girlfriend before a bear killed and partially ate both of them were these: "Get out here. I'm getting killed.''

This raises an intriguing question. The scene of Herzog listening to the tape and advising Palovak seems out of place. Why is it in the film? If Palovak did, indeed, destroy the tape, there are only a few people who know what actually happened, the people who listened to the tape. If Herzog and Palovak wanted to change history and preserve Treadwell’s reputation, what better way than to destroy the tape? And what better way to protect themselves than to film Herzog listening to it, articulating for the camera what he says is on the tape, and advising her to destroy it because it’s too upsetting for people to hear? If Treadwell did actually lure Amie to her death by pleading with her to “hit the bear,” as alleged by trooper Hill, and to “Get out here,” as alleged by Medred, and if that’s on the tape, it explains why Herzog and Palovak inserted the odd scene in the film, to establish a case that Treadwell died heroically, thinking of his girl friend instead of himself and urging her to save herself. But that is directly contrary to the statement of trooper Hill and the article by Medred. Trooper Hill and Medred are non biased third parties with no ax to grind. Herzog and Palovak were probably confident that nobody would be aware of Trooper Hill’s statement about Treadwell’s urging Amie on to her death. So, as far as they were concerned, if they put the staged scene of Herzog listening to the tape and advising Palovak to destroy it, their apparently manipulated story of Treadwell’s death would pass into posterity as fact with trooper Hill’s statement to the contrary and Medred’s article never being exposed to any more than those who read the articles in Alaska papers in 2003.

I interviewed Medred for this review. He confirmed everything in his article and gave me other revealing information. He said that Grizzly People, Treadwell’s organization, hired a powerful attorney immediately to get the tape sent to California, and it was, while the investigation was being conducted, and that nobody has heard of it since. He said that there were probably not more than a half dozen people who actually listened to the tape. He spoke with two scientists who had heard it, both of whom confirmed that Treadwell was pleading with Amie to hit the bear with the skillet, which Medred says would be difficult for her to do if she were running away, as Herzog alleges Treadwell told her to do.

The bottom line is that the truth is in the tape. If the tape has been destroyed, there are only a few witnesses who actually heard it. I know of three specifically, Herzog, Palovak, and Hill. Herzog and Palovak are clearly biased and their manipulation of the story of the destruction of the tape is suspicious. Hill, on the other hand, has no reason to be anything other than truthful.

The only parts of the film I found interesting were the scenes of two bears apparently battling over the right to mate with a female, and the events leading up to Treadwell's death. Had it been shorter, more honest, and organized, it could have been an entertaining study of madness, but it's far too long and unfocused. There are some pretty scenes of Alaska but this is a film about an unimportant, psychologically flawed person with more faults than virtues.

July 12, 2005