Animal Planet ran a marathon of the Werner Herzog documentary “Grizzly Man” today against the AFC and NFC championship games. I assume most of you watched football. So did I. But seeing the movie on the small screen once again was a sign that I should repost a little rant I did on the film that caused quite a stir on the IMDB message boards (a producer of the film even contacted me, mostly in agreement). The rant is a bit long, but rants are a quick read since you don’t have to think too hard and just go with the flow… kind of like Timothy Treadwell. Here’s a snippet from the first salvo where I ask the question, who was the worst actor in the documentary (there aren’t supposed to be actors in documentaries, by the way). There’s a bit near the end where I note the similarities between Treadwell and Steve Irwin. This was written before Irwin’s death, in a prophetic observation of impending doom caused by a lust for fame doing stupid antics with wild animals.
I wanted to be moved by the Grizzly Man film in that inner child, lover of bears, sort of way. Sadly, the only movement the film inspired was one in my lower bowels. I was pretty disgusted with the various people in the film elbowing each other to out-grieve or over-dramatize the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard.
Who do you think should win the award for worst overacting in a “documentary”? Nominees include:
The Coroner. I loved the touch of the “dead body” in the white plastic bag on the examining table, as if the film maker caught him right before he was to autopsy some Inuit who had been flash frozen and kayaked down to the examiner’s office… or was that supposed to be a reenactment of carcass Tim or disemboweled Amie? Surprisingly there was no blood or gore in the white plastic bag. My guess is that it was just some cardboard or towels made to look like a body. After his horribly overwrought lines–and they were lines, written by himself or by Herzog–were painfully acted, I was particularly impressed by the extremely awkward pauses and the scared glances into the camera as Herzog waited 4 or 5 seconds too long after the good Doctor had finished his lines to cut. During his staged lines, the Doc might have passed for one of those prime time coroners who solve crimes with their insightful analysis, except that this Doc was all conclusions and no analysis. It was amazing all of the things he commented on that had nothing to do with him examining human remains for insight.
In fact, I don’t recall a single “this is what I saw and this is what it meant” statement. But as a vehicle for Herzog to play up the grotesque (and interesting) elements of the story, the Doc and the Pilot were really the only dispassionate people that could be used. Those painfully awkward moments were really telling, they showed that the Doc was staged and that after he delivered his canned lines, he looked to Herzog like a puppy to ask, “Is that what you wanted?” I imagine that the Coroner will be first in line to audition for CSI:Anchorage.
The Grieving “Widow.” Like Treadwell, she’s a failed waitress and a failed actress. For that matter, she’s even a failed widow. Her best scene is when she joins up with the good Doctor and he bestows a rubber watch on her with as much pomp and circumstance as a medal of honor ceremony. She flaunts the watch to the camera like a bride would a diamond, and they both wonder in amazement that the watch still runs, as if this is some modern Hanukkah lamp or a paid plug for Energizer batteries. Her worst scene is when she sits with buggy eyes as Herzog tries to tell her what’s on the tape, as if she hasn’t listened to it herself, and then she accepts his advice as if he were a shrink and she was a mentally ill but receptive patient. I find it fitting that she was fired from her job as a wench because she overacted with a propane heater and lighter fluid, turning hokey dinner entertainment into a lethal situation. I wonder why Treadwell dumped her ass, they seem like soul mates to me!
The Platonic Lover. This woman has issues. Treadwell uses her basement for storage for 15 years, he tells her he loves her, she ghostwrites a book for him, she’s the last woman who sees him before he leaves and the first to greet him when he’s back, and even though Treadwell moans about being so lonely and finding women so hard to figure out sexually, they’ve never consummated their relationship? Oh yeah, and she’s got a reused can of chewing tobacco with some of his mementos in it, along with a morbid potpourri of his remains even Martha Stewart would gag at… bear hair, human bits, parsley sage rosemary and thyme? The only thing she didn’t cram into that little can was bear feces, which Treadwell was so enamored with, and was ultimately what he ended up as.
Mom was a little enamored with the camera and Herzog did her a real disservice by making her seem stiff and awestruck instead of loving or grieving or even fondly reflective. I really enjoyed the part where the father recalled his final bit of parental authority over Timothy when he “put the kibosh” on Tim smoking pot in the house, even though he knew that Tim was just getting high elsewhere. You almost expected them both to shrug and say, “kids these days, what can you do?” and then go back to watching Wheel of Fortune.
Werner Herzog. The only reason this documentary is interesting is because it’s morbid. It’s not compelling as a nature documentary: after 15 years in the wilderness, the best bear footage Treadwell gets is two males wrestling for a screw. It’s not compelling as a tragedy: neither character fell from a high place, although Treadwell was fatally flawed, and although calamitous, there was decidedly no meaningful ending. It fails as a portrait of a character because Treadwell’s only depth seems to arise from his manic depression and his choice of drugs.
Unsatisfied with his inability to tell the story from behind the camera and crippled with plastic performances by his actors (and they were all acting), Herzog breaks the sacred barrier and enters his own documentary. Calro Cavagna of AboutFilm.com hit this dead on when he wrote, “Herzog comes across as the worst kind of cinematic jackass—the filmmaker who doesn’t trust his own work to speak for itself.”
What cowardice it is to sell a bill of goods on a sensationalized story based upon 6 minutes of audio, and then not play a single second of that audio. Even worse, stage a scene with the closest thing you can find to a grieving widow, listen to a bit of the tape yourself, narrate a word or two and then become overwhelmed with it all and tell the woman to shut it off, as if you’re being tortured and can’t remove the headphones yourself. Then, you advise her to not listen to it and destroy it… when IT is the only reason you are going to afford that time share in Maui this year.
This is tantamount to reading an article that someone has found the holy grail but have since gone missing, so you do a documentary on it to cash in on the hype, track down their footage, chop it together, and when you come across the grail in what remains of their gear you decide to destroy it, lest someone else come along and uncover that it was just a Nalgene bottle and two stupid hikers who died of dehydration and their own poor planning. Since you can’t show footage of the Nalgene bottle, you show a clip of yourself looking at the bottle, off camera, and after some oohing and awwing, you decide that even though your job as a documentor is to deliver the truth and let the audience decide, you shall spare them from their own inability to process the information, even though your sales pitch promised to expose the truth of the grail. All of the hype and interest in this film is in its similarities to a “Faces of Death” video, except unlike that franchise which offers 20 second clips of action and gore with no back story or fluff, this film is all fluff and no gore.
Timothy Treadwell himself. This man-child was a clown looking for an audience. After a failed attempt to play a bar tender in Cheers (and look how amazing Woody Harrelson has done since he beat out Treadwell for the part!) Treadwell decides to take his hideous acting as far away from mankind as possible–perhaps his only wise move. Just like the mildly successful idiot Aussie Steve Irwin, Treadwell’s show isn’t about the animals, it’s about how stupid the host can be and still survive for another episode. I really enjoyed the clip where Treadwell does a bazillion takes of himself sprinting through the bush in different outfits (read: he changes his head band) so he can splice it together later no matter what do-rag he’s wearing in the other footage. Funny that Treadwell affects a fake Aussie accent and even tells people that’s where he’s from, as if being stupid with animals and endangering yourself and those around you is somehow ok if you’re from down under. Perhaps Herzog could go back and get Treadwell’s mom to say “the dingo ate my baby! err. I mean the grizzly ate my baby!” to round out the farce that was this mockumentary.
Treadwell does the environmentalist movement a great disservice. He comes off as a psycho idiot whose environmental stance is “all for me, none for you.” Any environmentalist who needs to say “don’t try this at home kids, don’t do what I do, don’t treat wild animals like pets and don’t push your luck over and over again” is NOT an environmentalist. Treadwell worships the hot and fresh dung of a bear he was just watching, placing his hands in it and praising it for being “perfect” because it was “in her, a part of her.” It’s kind of ironic that he’d be so drawn to bear dung, considering that bear dung was his fate.
Treadwell is no Don Quixote, but the giants he chases are certainly all in his head. He claims again and again to be a defender of the wild life, but we never see one example of him saving anything at all. The closest he comes to saving the bears is hiding in the bushes as photographers throw rocks at a bear to get better pictures. Treadwell doesn’t even come out of the bush, he doesn’t scream to scare the bear off, he doesn’t yell at the photographers for throwing rocks. Rather, he waits until the photogs are gone and then decides that the smiley face and the “see you next year” message they left for him are DEATH THREATS, for HIM, not the bears! I’d hate to see how he’d respond to people who were shooting bullets instead of pictures. He’s not fighting for national park status, he’s not fighting against eco-tourism, and he’s not fighting against poaching…. but he’s a “warrior” ??? The last thing that I really don’t understand is the preoccupation of Treadwell and of Herzog over Treadwell’s sexuality. For some reason the middle of the documentary has a monologue with Treadwell bemoaning gay men and how easily they can get their rocks off by going to bathrooms and having commitment-less sex. With all the honesty of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” Treadwell squeaks out a “but oh gosh, I’m soooo not ghay! bummer man!” at the end of his rant, as if he needed to convince himself, because there’s certainly no one else around. Then there’s the multiple times during the film that the voice overs assure us that Treadwell did, in fact, have sex with women… lots of them… to the point where when a woman that Treadwell didn’t have sex with shows up, they have to differentiate her as a “platonic” friend. Funny how all these women that Treadwell brings along to warm his tent never show up in his years of footage… and the one who does is only there twice… and a third time off camera being killed, after she wanted to leave him and not come back. Wow, how romantic.
Others have commented on how it seems odd that Treadwell would be such a hypocrite to constantly want to defend the bears as a warrior and on way too many occasions speak of dying FOR them or even BY them… to change at the moment of death and ask Amie to bash the bear’s head in with a frying pan. I don’t see this as a change at all. It was ALWAYS about him. It was always about creating a mythical character who could commune with the animals to the exclusion of all others. To name the bears is to own them. Treadwell didn’t want to accept money in return for his talks because that would mean he’d have to in some small way give up ownership of his bears. For some people, what they do in the face of their own death is telling of their character. For others, the moment of death is meaningless or anticlimactic or unrevealing of anything other than a single emotion or instinctual response. Since we are truly denied knowing what Treadwell’s last moments were like we are left victims of Herzog’s creation of the event. I’m just surprised that Herzog didn’t add in some lines like “remember me, finish my quest, protect the bears” followed by Herzog interjecting “the reason I made this film is to sear this man’s courage into the public memory, to continue his quest, and to protect the bears, I can only hope, in the most humble of ways, that I have succeeded.” This documentary, like Treadwell’s death, was boldly meaningless. It was more fabrication than fact, and it didn’t give us the one bit of satisfaction we wanted… hearing Treadwell being eaten by a bear.
The responses and further discussion (totally a whopping 29 pages) can be read in PDF here.
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