Wolf Song of Alaska News

Morbid Curiosity the Bait of Treadwell Film 'Grizzly Man'

Liz Ruskin / Anchorage Daily News / August 19, 2005

You know you're going to see this documentary, "Grizzly Man," just as, even though you hate yourself for it, you'll rubberneck a car crash. We all do.

"Grizzly Man" tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a wannabe TV actor who reinvented himself as a savior and friend of bears. He spent 13 summers in Alaska's Katmai National Park, living disturbingly close to the grizzlies, until he and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten in 2003.

"Grizzly Man" is directed by German cinema heavyweight Werner Herzog, so you needn't slink to the multiplex or whisper into the ticket booth.

Herzog is probably most famous for "Fitzcarraldo," about a man who drags a ship over a South American mountain to build an opera house in the jungle.

He obviously loves egomaniacal, delusional heroes who flout the laws of nature.

Working with more than 100 hours of video tape that Treadwell shot over his last five summers in Katmai, Herzog portrays the man as deeply flawed but also gifted and well-intentioned.

Treadwell said he was protecting the animals from poachers. Herzog notes that the bears he lived among were in a national park, and he allows that the poachers might be products of Treadwell's paranoia.

Still, people who want to see Treadwell as an eco-warrior can leave the theater with that impression intact.

And those who think him a fool will find plenty of proof too.

Treadwell endlessly cooed "I love you" at bears and foxes. He spoke in a cutesy falsetto and once got so excited about finding a pile of fresh bear scat that he couldn't stop himself from touching it.

"There's her poop!" he gushed. "It's warm! It just came from her butt!"

Treadwell didn't just film bears. He filmed himself in front of the bears, narrating as if for a kiddie version of a nature show, using that voice people use when talking to their pets.

"Well, I'm here with one of my favorite bears, Mr. Chocolate," he says to the camera, with a grizzly right behind him and coming closer. "Hello, Mr. Chocolate!"

Treadwell, wearing hip Oakley sunglasses, would do takes over and over to correct flubbed lines and other imperfections. Maybe he was going to make a film for children from his footage. Or maybe, even alone with the bears, he just couldn't stop acting.

Herzog, who also narrates the movie, says he saw in Treadwell's tapes "a film of human ecstasies and darkest turmoil." (Read that with your best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.)

The Katmai scenery stuns and mesmerizes, especially with the haunting score by musician Richard Thompson. But no matter how high the film reaches, it's impossible to overcome the sensational subject matter: A man and a woman are eaten by a bear.

Yes, my fellow rubberneckers, there are grisly details.

"We hauled four garbage bags of people out of that bear," one man says.

Herzog, though, spares you -- OK, denies you -- the audio tape the couple inadvertently made during the attack. Instead, you watch Herzog listen to the tape on headphones. Then you see him give the tape back to Jewel Palovak -- Treadwell's friend, inheritor of his video tape and co-executive producer of the film -- with instructions to destroy it. "Jewel, you must never listen to this," he says, "and you must never look at the photos I have seen at the coroners' office."

His apparent earnestness in this encounter doesn't quite hit the mark.

In fact, for a documentary, the movie seems to show a lot of people acting. Treadwell is always playing to his camera, and Herzog sometimes lays it on an inch too thick. His camera lingers long on Franc Fallico, the Alaska medical examiner, who seems to be auditioning for a part on "CSI."

>From the first news accounts, the deaths of Treadwell and Amie Huguenard raised questions. Did Treadwell have a death wish? A mental illness? Had he -- with one lethal exception -- charmed the bears he lived among, or had he just been lucky all those years? What did he think he was doing?

Herzog draws his own conclusions, but he also shows you plenty of Treadwell.

Judge for yourself.

Reporter Liz Ruskin can be reached at lruskin@adn.com.

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