{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Grizzly Man

It is the third film by director Werner Herzog, that I saw. The earlier two (Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo) and this one, make me believe that the favorite theme of this director remains an enigmatic mix of wilderness, civilization, passion, obsession, life and death. To tell it more clearly - on the risk of being too definitive - his films remains a document of clash of wild and civilization (here both are equally brutal and murderous), the descent of passion into obsession, and the game of life and death (game of survival). And when we look more closely and read more about the director, these are his ways to understand people - and again to put it more definitively - to explore the darkness of human nature.

This film is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who lived with Grizzly Bears for 13 summers in Alaskan peninsula and on this last expedition (along with his girl friend Amie Huguenard), he was devoured by one of the bears. Its an irony of sorts at the first look. The man who came to save them was killed by them. But as the film progresses we came to know that its not that simpleton.

Most of the film is actually shot by Treadwell himself, who shot above 100 hrs of footage when he stayed with the wild bears. What Herzog did is to edit them, mix them with some interviews with Alaskan natives, geologists, officials and Treadwell's friends and provided an evocative narration. Herzog's voice is non-condescending either to the bears or to Treadwell, I found the narration superlative. Even when Herzog draws some conclusion and personal insights, we know that he is not giving a conclusion or general simplistic view. His commentary shows that he knows and respects the people and situation, he is dealing with.

Treadwell's courage and his obsessive desire to bond with the wild bears tells us as much about him as about the concepts of courage, bonding, communication and obsession. On Treadwell-ian scale, I am an extremely timid person. Also there is one more point that I am not sure of. Can courage accrue ? What are it limits ? One of my friends, who drives his bike at neck-break speeds says that he does not feel a bit scared doing that stunt. He says that this courage builds up. When asked whether he will try to test his limits, he replies, I don't drive alone, there are people on the road that can not cope up with my exploits. This is the whole point of being in a civilization, there are limits that you think you can cross but are not justifiable (the other way to look at it may be that he lacks courage). He goes to remote areas to drive like crazy, without knowing that it doesn't take two to kill, when you race a bike. Probably that why Treadwell resented civilization and spent so much time with the bears, and wanted to be like them. The point he probably missed is that wild is no better than civilization, in the end they are both same, and in the wild, although there are not written rules, nature rules. The delusional hope that he will bond to bears better than the human proved fatal for him. Treadwell knew bears were wild, film shows two male bears ferociously fight to court a female, and a baby bear is killed by his own father to stop the female to lactate so that the male can fornicate her. Treadwell accrued the courage to move nearer and nearer to the wild, but there was no such communication back from the wild, except in the mind of Treadwell. One point, from Treadwell perspective, is why he did that. The justification he gave for this is to protect the bears but reasons and justifications are seldom same. This documentary tries to explore some reason for the passion that turned to obsession, and gradually delves into his mind and psyche, which is both horrifying and compassionate.

At one point, Treadwell says "Everything about them is perfect". That sentence reminds me of people, who are quite amused by the nature and its beauty. This is not to deny the natural beauty but they loose the sight that beauty has its horrors, and we should respect both. Although not related to this post, I also don't understand what amusement people get when a natural place is turned into a luxury resorts. First they take a natural beauty, make it artificial and advertise and claim how near to nature it is. Do we all really have any desire to go near nature, but can not go near if its too natural, or its just another gimmick to make money and satisfy some residual unsatisfied desires. Its always fun to see how people call the others who come to such places as crowds. We belong to a funny species with some hollow sense of self-importance.

Coming back to the documentary, Herzog also brings two more very important characteristics of Treadwell and where as a filmmaker (and especially the one who has worked in wilderness and with the wild [I am referring to Kinski, no pun intended]), he could relate to him as a person shooting in the face of death and danger. Herzog discovers a filmmaker and an actor in Treadwell. There is a footage of Treadwell acting for himself with his camera on a tripod, where he acts in a film in which he plays some sort of forest ranger to protect bears from poachers. I think the absolute fantasy of an actor is to find someone who can write complex stories and he can act them. His fantasy is to charm everyone with his acting, and its sort of an obsession too. Treadwell made these tapes of himself with the wild bears and showed them to the world. For him, he was the person who wrote heroic parts for himself, the roles of a savior hero. All alone, away from civilization, he thought he was the hero. Also there is an intimacy in those films (especially where Treadwell goes to confessional mode). As a filmmaker, Treadwell compulsively shot in the wild and took some amazing footage of the wild nature, at times taking as much as 20 retakes for perfection. One of my favorite shots in films is where there is a background (think it as a lane where it is raining and no one is there, its evening), the actor comes, acts his/her part and goes away, leaving the empty background, camera stays there for a while. There are several such shots in films by Ozu. In one of the tapes, Treadwell do exactly the same. The background was thick forest with wild winds blowing, he comes to the frame, speaks his lines and leaves, and camera stays there looking at the trees and the wind that sways them, that Treadwell had left behind. I thought there is a certain beauty and a solid metaphor in that.

Although its a documentary and if there is a plot we know it beforehand (Treadwill will be killed by the bear), but like a narrative film, Herzog builds the character of Treadwill with small stokes and we go on adding bits to our cliched understanding of him as the film progresses. At one point of time where some persons reject Treadwell as a freak, Herzog speaks in the narration that he don't think so. But the whole effort was not to justify what Treadwell and all the people like him do and are doing, but its to understand them. To draw a distant analogy, we may think the Emma Bovary as selfish and petty woman but Flaubert tries to understand her in all her flaws and let his readers do that. Its not about whether the person is good or bad but its about to translate them to the audience and readers.

Read the Sensesofcinema profile of Werner Herzog here. Its added in the 41st issue.


Alok said...

The point he probably missed is that wild is no better than civilization, in the end they are both same, and in the wild, although there are not written rules, nature rules.

this is a very interesting point. I haven't seen it yet but your post made a lot of sense even without me having seen the film...

wildflower seed said...

You have written this so well! Have you seen My Best Fiend? Very nice! Actually, my journey with Herzog began with that film. I was so mesmerized by Kinski at the time that I even hunted down some of his light erotica movies :), and watched them carefully ;). My favorite Herzog film is Woyzeck. It has one of the most lyrically beautiful endings in all of the cinema I've seen.

Indrajith said...

There are no written rules or natural rules. Only unwritten rules rules. Might has always been right in the society ( Almost??) and the same with the Wild.

In Wild atleast you can be sure that it is going to kill. Civic society make you believe in something and betrays you.

anurag said...

alok, hope it makes sense even after seeing the film :)

wfs, thanks a lot. you are so generous in your comments.

I wanted to see 'My Best Fiend' for long, but not able to get it. Kinski was absolutely brilliant in the other two Herzog films, that I saw.

anurag said...


The feeling of betrayal can be a one sided feeling. You trusted someone and you thought he/she will reciprocate your trust and will not betray you. But you are not sure of the feeling on the other side.

I think, Treadwell might have experienced a feeling of betrayal in his last moments, even through he knew that one day he might get killed.

The problem that I find with your argument is the romanticization of wild, as some exclusive place of peace, serenity and abundant beauty.

Vidya said...

Read this from one of his interviews:

Kinski says [the jungle] is full of erotic elements. It’s not so much erotic, but full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here. I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking, fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there’s a lot of misery, but it’s the same misery that’s all around us. The trees are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing; they just screech in pain. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration for the jungle. It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

I more or less felt the same way after seeing his Green ants movie. It's not a justification but it seems like his movies draw an attention to certain things that people miss.There was one scene where the two tribesmen sit in the aircraft (they aks for it) and gaze randomly and pointlessly.Even if some of the approaches are a little 'dramatic' he succeeds in shaking off our complacence a little bit.