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#10: Grizzly Man
(USA, 2005; dir. Werner Herzog; cin. Peter Zeitlinger and Timothy Treadwell; with Timothy Treadwell, Jewel Palovak, Willy Fulton, Werner Herzog, Franc Fallico, Carol Dexter, Val Dexter, Warren Queeney, Kathleen Parker, Sam Egli, Sven Haakanson Jr., Marnie Gaede, Marc Gaede, Larry Van Daele)
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I never think about this film anymore without thinking of my kind and generous colleague Chris Herbert, who helped coax me out of a different kind of wilderness at a crucial moment.

By the end of 2005, most gay cinephiles were pitching pup tents on Brokeback Mountain, but I never made it out of Katmai National Park, the scene of an even queerer love. Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man was successfully sold as a record of the ardent bear advocate who found himself on the wrong side of one animal's fur coat. Much of the film's uptake in critical and popular reception sustained debates already manifest within the documentary, where friends, scientists, conservationists, museum curators, and even the coroner weigh in on whether Timothy Treadwell lived a foolish or a noble life, and whether he ultimately served or endangered the grizzlies by acclimating them to human presence, playing all the while into stereotypes of nature-lovers as loopy, naïve fantasists. Treadwell's parents, interviewed about his childhood and some of his odd way-stations en route to global notoriety (including his near-brush with winning Woody Harrelson's role in Cheers), are tactfully spared any polling on the takeaway value of their late son's life, or about the almost foreordained logic of his death. That fatal attack in 2003, first reported to many people in late-night comedy monologues, was described with greater and lesser degrees of mirth as an O. Henry outcome or a told-you-so dénouement. Try to repeat his experiment of living for months each year among these gargantuan omnivores, Treadwell warns on camera, "and you will fuckin' die out here." A caption discloses that the precise site of his demise is visible within this same shot as he gloats, "I found a way." But Grizzly Man, for all its attention to such ironies, is not interested in chortling about them, or even in making Timothy's end the exclusive lens by which to read the parable of his life.

For me, Grizzly Man was always about fundamentalism. That notion resurged in global dialogues after 2001, usually within strongly historicized and politicized contexts: Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, or ideological fundamentalism, as when capitalism's merits must be placed beyond critique or when decisions to wage war must not be reversed even when their rationales get debunked as myth. The Corporation's profiling of the profit motive as an amoral and psychotic baseline of modern business presented one stirring case of confronting "fundamentalist" logic in what passed as a natural habitat. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's Jesus Camp was another, documenting a dual process whereby evangelical ardor is instilled in and expressed by young American children, learning through tears, testimonies, tools, and tongues to externalize convincingly their internal beliefs and impalpable souls. To say so doesn't mean these kids aren't earnest, and Grizzly Man likewise refuses any firm boundary between sincerity and performance. Timothy Treadwell's fervor for animals and his conversion from miscreant to nature worshiper was incomplete without a camera to play to, often for several takes of the same scene. Those who miss him dearly sometimes sound scripted, as when his actor friend Warren Queeney offers as spontaneous discourse a neat bit of oratory about Timmy "never scaring the cows." But no matter how rehearsed or image-conscious, everyone seemingly speaks and acts in earnest. In any case, what Grizzly Man offered before I was aware of craving it was a contemporary portrait of an idée fixe without the ineluctable cultural baggage of the Quran, the Bible, the baby, or the flag, and one that at least slows Red-vs.-Blue ideological reflexes. Yes, the fact that someone wrote to two of Timothy's friends advocating for a grizzly release in liberal bastions like U.C. Berkeley, hoping for similar outcomes, suggests that he struck many people as a prancing lefty refusing to acknowledge a Darwinian world of muscle and teeth. But the gentlest as well as the cruelest things I ever heard about Treadwell, for whom bears and foxes were everything, flowed from Dem-voting Blue types in big cities. Political proclivities dissolved from most conversations I had about the virtues (or not) of dying exactly as you'd hoped, or in the way you'd rendered inevitable, no matter how it "played."

In the meantime, thinking of Timothy Treadwell as a model for ironbound loyalty—call it love, call it commitment, call it monomania, call it selective vision, call it utter indifference to consequence—made me think differently about other people's fundamentalisms. I suppose some gun owners must think of each weapon as singular and special, just as Downey, Mickey, Aunt Melissa, and Mr. Chocolate were all distinct to Timothy. I tend to see iterations of the same: weapon weapon weapon, bear bear bear bear. I wonder if Dick Cheney isn't expressing a conscious principle as much as a bone-deep bent, inexplicable even to himself, in refusing to budge from his militarism. Does he feel safer among warcraft, like Timothy squatting among his animals, wanting nobody's and nothing's company anywhere near as much, even if these things can kill you or me or him? What are the things or who are the people I keep in my life because of some change in myself I associate with them—even if they coincided with that change more than they caused it, and even if the root of my investment seems entirely arbitrary? To what extent do we valorize ideals—bears, books, religious icons, or as Timothy says, "Jesus Boy or Allah or Hindu Floaty Thing"—because they conveniently never talk back to us? I laughed, as maybe you did, when Timothy stalks up to one bear's excrement and rhapsodizes over it, holds his hand up to it, warms to its warmth, for the sheer reason that it came out of one of his bears, came out of her. Keep on eye-rolling, but surely, for better or worse, there's someone or some idea in your life whose shit you're willing to shovel or grovel over, because you've already fixed that person or principle as an absolute good. Right?

What makes Grizzly Man especially invigorating is that Timothy's entrenched view of the bears does not inspire Herzog to an entrenched view of Timothy, even though he does not subscribe to his subject's worldview. "What haunts me," Herzog intones, "is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food." Still, Treadwell's footage does not become grist for Herzog to prove his vision of the cosmos, or to disprove Timothy's—or even to prove Timothy's, in the way that we sometimes sanctify the convictions of the recently deceased, clash though they might with our own. Treadwell is a believer, a doer, a nut, a hermit, a risk-taker, a risk-avoider, a troubled soul, an untroubled one, a self-deluder, and a person who may indeed have seen something most of us don't. Grizzly Man isn't above laughs, my favorite of which is the jump cut from a maudlin eulogy for a dead bumblebee to a shot of the same bee on the same flower, apparently just "sleeping." On the visual evidence, Timothy might be right or wrong on either side of the edit, and the joke's at his expense either way, but it's not mean. In a good way, Herzog has not elected on one view of Timothy. As someone whose angles on his characters can seem a little rigid to me (the romantic madness of Fitzcarraldo, the not-at-all-surprising eccentricity of Antarctic explorers), and whose projects sometimes fail to make a case for their subjects (the same year's White Diamond) or who rouses the viewer for better or worse through mad hyperbole (Aguirre, the Wrath of God or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans), Herzog scores a personal achievement in not pinning Treadwell down. He opts for gentleness and modesty, even when skeptical or bemused. He lets Timothy be a floaty thing, but not at all an abstraction.

"He was some kind of a man," a woman in Mexico once said about a man face down in a river. "What does it matter what you say about people?" Grizzly Man preserves what is wisest in that statement but eliminates the cynicism. I still have no firm feeling about whether Timothy's unshakeable commitment to the bears was good, bad, or immaterial for them. I sense it was good for him, but also at heavy cost. I actually don't know, and feel freed by the film into not knowing, despite Herzog's rangy and seemingly authoritative sense of his subject. He wears his knowledge of Timothy Treadwell lightly, allowing for humor, eulogy, conjecture, and critique, but he doesn't settle anywhere. I personally have no investment in how or when I die. I don't have any fear associated with the timing or the fact itself, and I wouldn't presume to know who will remember me, or how. I've also lost precious few people in my life; I'm 38 years old as I write this, and I still have three living grandparents. I did recently lose someone scarcely older than I am, a formidable artist and extraordinarily thoughtful friend and citizen who was also somewhat feckless in day-to-day life and prone to crazy mishaps. In the immediate wake of a major professional success, he was run over by a car this year in a foreign country while trying to help some runaway sheep across a road. What the hell do you do with that? Herzog's movie suggests you don't do anything with that: you let the memory and person be as they were for you, in their genius, their averageness, their absurdity. When the time comes, I'd be so happy to be remembered the same way. On that day, I wonder if I'll feel sorrow, panic, or serenity at having opted not to build my life around any one idea or object—or if I'll feel that in fact I did, and that object was the movies.

Grizzly Man commemorates and questions Timothy's unique form of fundamentalism but also his total embrace of contingency. His life is replete with self-reflections but also rife with evasions, as presumably many of ours are. The movie gives every sign of seeing this person from all the way around, but doesn't pronounce a verdict or presume to impart a moral to any of the millions of individuals who have seen it. Thank you, Werner Herzog, and thank you, Timothy Treadwell, for showing us so much, but not telling me anything that only I can discover for myself.

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