Timothy Treadwell was eaten by a bear. That’s usually what people remember about Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. The film delves into Treadwell’s obsession with grizzlies and his annual trips to the Alaskan wilderness to be close to them. These trips ended in the most gruesome of tragedies when he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed by a hungry bear.
What gets overlooked among all the other bizarre details of Treadwell’s life is that Grizzly Man is fundamentally a film about our relationship with the camera. The documentary is a combination of Treadwell’s self-shot footage in Alaska and Herzog’s interviews with the people who knew him. Like most Herzog films, it’s populated by lost souls, none of them more perplexing than Treadwell himself. What do you say about a man who shoos away a fully grown grizzly by brushing its nose and whispering “Ding!” Is he courageous, a complete idiot, or both?
Herzog uses the hundreds of hours of Treadwell’s footage to explore that question. Many of Treadwell’s films were intended as educational videos for schools, but he also used the camera as a friend, and, as Herzog points out, a confessional. Alone for months in the wilderness, Treadwell spent his time performing for an invisible audience and describing how he saw himself.
“Occasionally I am challenged,” he tells the camera, standing in front of two gigantic grizzlies. “And in that case, the kind warrior must become a samurai, must become so formidable, so fearless of death, so strong, that he will win. Even the bears will believe that you are more powerful.”
Shot during the early days of social media, Treadwell’s choice of the camera for self-invention looks eerily prescient. Today there are millions of us carving out onscreen lives on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. The question is why? What’s the allure of recording and projecting our experiences when, for most of us, it won’t be lucrative or have any practical effect? Grizzly Man takes a hard look at the role that screens play in our lives, with observations that seem even more relevant now than in 2005.
Herzog does this by giving his audience a behind-the-scenes look at Treadwell’s filmmaking. In his videos, Treadwell leaps from action figure mode to being riddled with insecurities. One minute he’s threatening to defy the American government; the next he’s fussing with his hair. We also get to see him reshooting scenes and struggling to make his clumsily assembled persona of the “kind warrior” convincing. It makes him the perfect subject for a director who’s obsessed with how we interact with the camera.
In different hands, Treadwell could easily have been skewered as a pathetic oddball, but Herzog offers something far more poignant and complicated. We get glimpses into the darker side of a man who tells bears that he loves them and gets upset about a sleepy bee. “I did everything that I could to try not to drink,” he tells Iris the fox, “and then I did everything I could to drink. And it was killing me, until I discovered this land of bears.”
It’s easy to see how alcoholism and a sense of personal failure drove Treadwell to try and become someone different. The problem was that an intrepid cowboy character remained hopelessly out of reach for a gentle but troubled kid from Long Island. Herzog’s insight as a filmmaker is that when it comes to creating a sense of self, failure is more interesting than success. Treadwell’s films are illuminating because they’re an exaggerated version of something much more familiar. His performance echoes what all of us do, trying to navigate the gulf between who we are and who we would like to be.
Treadwell’s role as an unlikely everyman character is emphasized in Herzog’s own interviews. There’s a theatrical quality to most of them, with ex-girlfriends, biologists, and coroners each playing their own dramatic role. In one memorable scene, the coroner sounds like a character in a soap opera as he describes Amie Huguenard’s horrific six-minute struggle to save Treadwell: “Amie stayed with her lover, with her partner, with her mate, and with the bear!”
The directorial style in Grizzly Man never allows the camera to become invisible. The lens wavers up and down and zooms in uncomfortably close. It’s impossible to forget that these are people with a camera shoved in their faces and a famous director standing in the room. For the most part, the interviewees respond by trying to make their emotions visible to the camera. The effect is hammy and overwrought, but not because it’s necessarily insincere.
Herzog manages to suggest that documentaries are just films with a cast of bad actors. It’s easy to take this one step further and conclude that the rest of life isn’t so different. Most of us are trying to rise to whatever situation we’ve stumbled into, with mixed success. The camera just makes that everyday performance more visible, showing how woefully underprepared we are for the difficulty of our own lives.
Few other directors have Herzog’s talent for straddling the fine line between tragedy and comedy. He uses that ability here to showcase Treadwell’s search for himself. There’s footage of Treadwell goofily pointing out the “Michelle Pfeiffer of bears” and complaining about his own love life. And then there’s Treadwell flipping off imaginary enemies in the Park Service and screaming, “Animals rule! Timothy conquered!”
These stagey performances would have been met with questions if Treadwell hadn’t been on his own. You wonder if he really wants an answer when he asks, “I cannot understand why girls don’t want to be with me for a long time, because I have a really nice personality.” Herzog subtly demonstrates how, for Treadwell, the camera replaced other people because his invisible audience was ultimately more comforting, and less judgmental, than a real one.
In this capacity, Grizzly Man shows how the camera can fuel fantasies by offering a space between being alone and being in company. We need other people to make sense of ourselves, but other people also have an annoying habit of pushing back. It’s hard to maintain the façade of being your perfect self when no one else can see it. But the camera is also an incredibly powerful tool for telling the kinds of stories that make sense of complicated lives.
Herzog also suggests that contending with our fantasies is necessary because there’s inescapable. We’re all actors, at least in certain situations, and maybe that’s the allure of social media. We get, however briefly, to become our own version of a bear-taming samurai. Treadwell’s love affair with the camera is a weirdly touching record of that common weakness. “What remains is his footage,” Herzog says, “It is not so much a look at wild nature as it is a look into our own nature, ourselves, and that for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to his life and to his death.”