Eat the Document
And now, to conclude, a documentary that is a fully realized work of art: Grizzly Man, by Werner Herzog.
The film's subject, not surprisingly, is Herzog himself, as mirrored in the life and death of a self-invented environmentalist named Timothy Treadwell (1957-2003). For thirteen summers, Treadwell went into the Alaskan wilderness to live among grizzly bears: learning their habits, following their life cycles and (as far as possible) blending in with them. During the off-seasons, he gave free talks about the bears to schoolchildren, managed his own preservation foundation, co-wrote a book about grizzlies and appeared on television talk shows. During his last five summers in Alaska, until the day a bear killed him and a companion, Amie Huguenard, he also videotaped his experiences. The footage he left behind--a hundred hours' worth, much of it extraordinary--provides the core material for Grizzly Man and permits Herzog to speak of Treadwell as a fellow filmmaker.
He was an actor, too. For the most part, he appears in his videotapes as a lean and bubbly fellow with a blond Prince Valiant haircut and a Mr. Rogers manner of speech. He gives cute names to animals and tells them "I love you." But as Herzog pieces together Treadwell's biography, mostly through newly shot interviews, a more driven side of the man emerges. We learn of a history of professional failure, drinking, drug abuse, mythomania and (so far as I can see) deeply conflicted sexuality. By discovering a passion for grizzly bears, Treadwell saved his life--he said so himself. Ultimately, though, he also gave up his life, and Huguenard's, to a fantasy of nature's benevolence.
In Treadwell's tapes, we see an attempt to make a film about wilderness and wildlife. In Herzog's hands, that same footage becomes a dark, complex film about human nature--or, at least, about the nature of two particular humans.