15, Number 17
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Ghost in the Maze: On Werner Herzog’s "Grizzly Man"
by Silvio Sirias
An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.
Knowledge is awareness, and to it are many paths, not all of them paved with logic. But sometimes one is guided through the maze by intuition. One is led by something felt on the wind, something seen in the stars, something that calls from the wastelands to the spirit.
On October 5, 2003, the self-proclaimed “eco-warrior” and filmmaker Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were mauled to death and then devoured by a grizzly bear near Hallo Bay, in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Treadwell devoted the last thirteen summers of his life to communing with grizzlies in the Alaskan wilderness. In addition to educating the public about the challenges bears face with regard to human encroachment upon their habitat, the filmmaker also claimed to protect them from poachers. (After Treadwell’s death, however, a spokesperson for the National Park Service stated that bear-poaching is a negligible problem.)
During his last five Alaskan summers, Treadwell filmed the grizzlies of Katmai National Park, and in doing so he left behind more than a hundred hours of footage as his most impacting legacy.
Treadwell’s life --- and the circumstances surrounding his death --- caught the attention of German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose early works, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, earned him the reputation of being a maverick director whose work is chaotic, daring, and frequently over-the-top. With full access to Treadwell’s film archives, Herzog created Grizzly Man --- a thoughtful, mesmerizing, and often poetic account of Treadwell’s existence and demise among these majestic, formidable, and extremely dangerous bears.
The first time I viewed Grizzly Man I cringed at times, believing that I was on the verge of witnessing a gruesome mauling scene. But viewers are spared of any sights and sounds of violence against humans; and although an audio recording of Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments does exist, Herzog does not include this in the documentary, and wisely so.
Instead, in addition to expertly weaving together breathtaking shots of grizzlies and foxes --- another animal for which Treadwell exhibited a unique affinity --- the German director focuses on painting the portrait of a man who through his obsessive relationship with bears struggles to keep his personal demons at bay.
Treadwell’s detractors, who are numerous, are quick to point out that he was far from being a naturalist in the great American tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir --- all men who devoted their lives to a particular geography, and not only to one species. What Timothy Treadwell was, some argue, was an opportunist who used the grizzlies to further his quest for fame and fortune. (Although one can counter that after thirteen summers in the wild, Treadwell’s bank account had little to show for his considerable sacrifices). And yet others claim that Treadwell used the grizzlies as therapy to soothe his severely fractured psyche.
It is precisely this aspect of Treadwell’s life that Grizzly Man explores best --- and stunningly so. As Herzog develops the story of the self-proclaimed “eco-warrior,” through the subject’s own footage, as well as through interviews with those close to Treadwell’s work, the viewer observes --- in addition to a handful of hair-raising scenes of the ultimately self-destructive manner in which Treadwell approached the bears --- moments that would have been best left to the confines of a Catholic confessional.
A recovering alcoholic, who in addition once had a serious problem with substance abuse --- the turning point in Treadwell’s life, after which he took to the Alaskan wild, occurred when he nearly died from a heroin overdose --- the “bear whisperer,” as he sometimes also referred to himself, found his life’s meaning in the grizzly community of Katmai National Park. These creatures helped him expel the tormenting spirits that had been after him most of his life. The grizzlies’ inscrutable gazes and impenetrable ways, plus the constant threat of death, kept Treadwell supplied with sufficient stimulation to live the remainder of his days without the need to turn again to alcohol or drugs.
The documentary Grizzly Man contains one episode where a bear stands with his back to a tree, rubbing against it to scratch. Treadwell approaches the creature and the animal moves aggressively toward the eco-warrior. Although it is obvious that Treadwell is terrified, he holds his ground and scolds the bear. The grizzly stops in his tracks, stares at the human for a moment, and then turns and leaves. Treadwell walks to the spot where the bear was scratching himself and realizes that the imposing being must have been at least ten feet tall. When he fully realizes the mortal danger he had been in, a rush of adrenaline, its effects plain to observe, makes him speak louder and faster than usual, in a forceful rush of words directed to the camera to which he repeats, over and over, his amazement at the grizzly’s size.
What remains certain after watching Grizzly Man is that Timothy Treadwell needed the bears far more than they needed him. Throughout the documentary he keeps referring to the maze --- a terrain where several streams converge and as a result it constitutes an important ground for grizzlies to catch salmon. Several times Treadwell states that the maze is a dangerous place, and it was here where he and Amie Huguenard encounter their deaths. But Herzog’s documentary, in capturing Treadwell’s spirit --- with its severe flaws --- eerily renders him immortal. And although from the onset the viewer knows that the eco-warrior will be killed and devoured by the very beings he loved so profoundly, in the final scene of the German filmmaker’s visual narrative the tall grasses move untouched, as if stirred by the continued wanderings of a ghost caught in the maze.
Silvio Sirias lives and writes in Panama. His most recent novel, Meet Me under the Ceiba, is being considered for the Stonewall Book Award of the American Library Association. For more information, visit his website at http://www.silviosirias.com
Also in this section:
Editorials: Martinelli challenged by sleaze; and Responding to climate change
Bernal, Panama past and future
Jackson, Cold War rhetoric meets rabiblanco mythology
Grant, Nickel and diming
Sirias, Purina Grizzly Bear Chow
Greenpeace versus Indonesian rainforest destruction
Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, The Americans should leave
Amnesty International, Let's have a real investigation of Brad Will's death
Chivvis, Portraits of the fallen
Reporters Without Borders, Uribe's "journalist protection program" spied on reporters
Human Rights Watch, Plebiscite undermines justice in Uruguay
Weisbrot, Bolivia and Ecuador shatter neoliberal myths
Cruz, Mexico in crisis
Elledge, The return of Cuba's sugar economy?
Beach, The Pentagon's Professor Crandall and Caribbean interventions
Nasser, The Obama administration destroys a supposed ally
Zaretsky, Clinton’s visit to Pakistan
Letters to the editor
Luxury apartment rentals in Casco Viejo, Panama City
2009 by Eric Jackson
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