Martin LeFevre: Contemplating “Grizzly Man”
Contemplating “Grizzly Man”
The film “Grizzly Man,” narrated by the acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog, is a riveting and disturbing documentary account of Timothy Treadwell’s 13 summers living unprotected amongst one of the most ferocious animals on earth. (Stop and save this review if you want to see the film before reading a discussion about it.)
The core of the film is the contrast between Treadwell and Herzog’s basic perceptions of the natural world. In the end however, Herzog’s view is as superficial as Treadwell’s was sentimental.
The filmmaker carefully avoids judging Treadwell, letting the scenes speak for themselves. In brief, Timothy Treadwell, after failing at an acting career, and drifting ever deeper into self-destructive behaviors (including alcoholism), finds his calling living in grizzly territory in remote areas of the Alaskan peninsula. His exuberantly expressed mission was to protect the huge bears, as well as to educate the public, especially children, about them.
But there was a strong death wish in him. “I can smell death all over my fingers,” he said with the grizzlies foraging in the background.
Long before the narration confirms it, one senses that things ended very badly. Not only was Treadwell killed and eaten, but the woman that he had taken with him also became food for an old, hungry bear late in the season. (The bear was later destroyed, and the human contents of its huge stomach removed and autopsied.)
Referring to the incredible danger Timothy faced summer after summer, Herzog eloquently articulates Treadwell’s misanthropy when he says: “There’s a larger and more implacable adversary out there, the people’s world, and civilization… Timothy Treadwell only has mockery and contempt for it.”
“He’s fighting civilization itself,” Herzog adds, “the same civilization that cast Thoreau out of Walden, and John Muir into the wild.” Well, not quite. Why did Treadwell take a woman with him? And why did she go? Was his misanthropy also tinged with misogyny?
The spectacular scenes of the grizzlies that Treadwell shot, including foxes that became his pets, are some of the most spellbinding wildlife photography ever filmed. But the grizzly is an elemental force of nature. Giving them names, and touching their noses, Treadwell not only violated the park rule to steer clear of the bears; he trespassed on their territory.
But he didn’t only transgress. Treadwell tried to cross over the line that demarcates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. “I’ll be one of them,” he said, “I’ll be master.”
It’s easy to dismiss the childish sentimentality of Timothy Treadwell, exemplified by the fact that he talked to the grizzlies like the teddy bear from his childhood that he still slept with in his tent. But there are tremendous issues posed by his at once tortured and incandescent life.
As Herzog rightly says, Treadwell’s life “is not so much a look into wild nature as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature.” But for Herzog, the reflection is still projection. “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”
That philosophy is just the flip side of Treadwell’s sentimental view of animals. Treadwell hated the world, but to see the universe as essentially chaos, hostility, and murder is to hate life.
Certainly nature is utterly indifferent to humans, as anyone who has spent a few days alone in the wilderness viscerally realizes. But though the natural world is a continuous fight for survival, where eat and be eaten is the fundamental law, there is something beyond tooth and claw within nature.
Both worldviews, the sentimental and the cynical, are deep reactions to the loss of the illusion of Eden. The sentimentalist sees Eden in nature and hates civilization for destroying it; the cynic is angry for being duped into believing there ever was such a place.
The myth of Eden represents the preconscious animal state of being, eternally locked into the present. Timothy Treadwell tried to return to that state, and become a bear rather than a man.
Carrying the fight for survival over into the man-made world, and using mental capabilities that necessitate cooperation over competition, humans have made a hell on earth. Treadwell railed against the world and sought to permanently flee it.
There never was a time when humans lived in a sinless state before we fell from grace. But we cannot return to the animal state of being. We can, as awakening human beings, live in the present in a new way, as fully conscious beings.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.