With Werner Herzog the one putting together the documentary Grizzly Man (2005), one cannot help but expect brilliance, & to great extent we get it. Yet it is made up largely of amateur footage shot by the star of the piece, Timothy Treadwell, who seems himself to have been a kind of a spastic genius if we may suppose Herzog hasn't made him look like a better filmmaker than he was.
In Treadwell's vanity-footage he captures himself, accidentally it would seem, as not in his right mind. At times he seems to be pretty sure he's making a film about grizzly bears that will be viewed mostly by children, & he talks like a simpering Mr. Rogers. But then he bursts into loony monologues about despair or starts cursing in the foulest language.
He also comes off as mightily dishonest because he pretends always to be completely alone when in fact he does have his girlfriend along with him much of the time. So he is merely pretending to be the Great Loner of the Wilderness, He That Is One With the Bears. He comes off as a monomaniac who doesn't want to share even an imaginary limelight with the woman who is often holding the camera & taking all same risks as himself.
In all the footage Herzog had to work with, there is nothing but one distant shot of the girlfriend, who Treadwell successfully kept hidden as he perpetrates his fraud of singularity. But when a grizzly finally kills him, it kills her too. She had feared the bears & this was never her project; she just supported him; but she paid, no less than himself, the ultimate price for her friend's folly.
Because of his streak of dishonesty & the clear impression that Treadwell was a little bit insane, it's easy to think of him as a moron who should never have been in that forest at all, especially since it turned out so badly. But probably his endeavors were no less respectable than any dangerous hobby or occupation, such as mountain climbing or jumping motorcycles over busses.
Yet the nutty thing is how he seems really to wish he were a bear, to strongly desire to touch & interact with them, to be trusted by them or at least convince himself they trusted & liked him. His belief that they would never hurt him, because they accept him as one of them, puts him in a category of mental illness far apart from most naturalists & wilderness eccentrics, though how much of his belief in honorary bear status was pose & how much was a dangerous delusion is not easy to judge.
I think Tim's life choice merits respect even though it killed him. He deserves less respect for having caused the death of a second party he always pretended wasn't there.
If his film had been about the foxes he seems fully to have tamed in the wild, it would've been a great nature film about taming wild foxes.
Although any serious naturalist would be horrified at the degree to which he interferes with the wildlife to the point of near domestication, I nevertheless loved the bits with the foxes.
When one of the foxes steals his hat, his cursing & his attempt to get his hat back is extremely funny. When the foxes let him pet them it's truly endearing. And when he has a grief-attack upon finding one of his foxes dead among the foliage, that's one helluva tearjerker whether or not one suspects whining Tim's off his noodle.
When Tim & his girlfriend were killed, the camera had been set up, but there was no time to remove the lens. Only the sound of their demise was recorded during the fatal bear attack. This sound is never played for us, either because Herzog really thought it far too tasteless (which I don't believe -- he'd've revelled in its tasetelessness) or more likely because he couldn't get permission to use it.
When he tells the owner of the tape she should destroy it because nobody should hear anything that awful, I had the distinct impression that Herzog's real worry was that if he were not permitted to use the sound of their deaths in his documentary, that left the door open for someone else to make the definitive documentary about the loony grizzly man. And to speak on-camera about how terrible, terrible, terrible that horrific sound is -- it's the sort of melodramatics that definitely argue against good taste having anything to do with anything.
Herzog seems to have felt an honest affinity for Treadwell as a filmmaker, & to have respected the material. How much Herzog reshaped it through editing only he knows, but what he presents is clearly a man in conflict with his own self-loathing.
Chances are Treadwell was gay without ever having accepted his gayness, & there's a piece of Herzog's added footage that cuts to a boat's name "Pansy" in the wake of revelations about the sexlessness of his relations with women, & Tim's own rant about not being homosexual but it might be easier to find a companion if only he had been.
It's got enough of nature in it to qualify as a nature documentary, but it's much more overtly a psychological study that just about demands amateur psychoanalysis of its subject. It's as if Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin were filming himself leaping on crocodiles & shouting "Crikey! Ain't she a beauty!" & then reciting loony speeches about he's a crocodile too, until slowly we figure out Steve's a perve who is just trying to have sex with crocodiles.
As a documentarian Herzog would seem to be devoted to documenting eccentricity near to madness, including his own.
My Best Friend, Klaus Kinski (1999) conveys the late great actor as close to being an enraged mentally ill man as anyone can be without getting himself institutionalized, & yet it was clearly a joy to have known him & to have created great art (in such a film as Aguirre the Wrath of God, 1972) thanks to the input of such brilliant madness.
Then there's Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) documenting the obsessions of German American Dieter Dengler who has never emotionally recovered from near starvation as a prisoner of war in Laos during the Viet Nam war.
The lengths Dieter goes to in order to horde food seem a tragic use of such intelligence, but Herzog clearly delights in the man, & treats him respectfully. Herzog would revisit this story in a fictionalized context a decade later, with the war film Rescue Dawn (2006).
If Herzog ever seems unduly eager to film humanity at its strangest, at least he does not mind when the tables are turned by Les Blank after a bet between Herzog & a young filmmaker. Having lost the bet, Herzog allowed Blank to fully document the outcome. The title says it all: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980), after it is expertly cooked.
He soonafter permitted Les Blank to make Burden of Dreams (1982) which poses as a "making of" film about Fitzcarraldo (1982) but is really about what a dangerously obsessive madman Herzog can be (so no wonder he loved Kinski -- as a kindred spirit).
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