I recently re-watched Grizzly Man

I recently re-watched Grizzly Man, one of my favourite films. It tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, a somewhat socially maladjusted individual who spent thirteen summers living with grizzly bears in the wilds of Alaska. Early on in the film, we learn that he was eventually killed by one of these bears. Treadwell had collected over 100 hours of close-quarters footage of these awe-inspiring animals, as well as plenty of himself; alternately displaying childlike wonder, existential rage and bi-polar tendencies, Treadwell is as compelling to watch as the bears. This portrait is sensitively painted by legendary film-maker Werner Herzog, who provides his trademark sonorous voiceover, loaded with gravitas and insight. (continued below)
 

The first time I saw the film, I was gripped by Treadwell’s story, and the sensational images he captured. Second time around, the sheer craft involved in putting it together became more evident to me. Herzog’s talent for storytelling is immense – he sometimes simply lets the footage speak for itself, lingering on the remote, windblown landscapes. This is in opposition to the fashion in today’s mass media : frenetic, disorienting cuts – an overused and sometimes cheap, empty device. During interviews with Treadwell’s friends and ex-lovers the camera’s gaze is often unflinching, declining to cut away at the conventional ‘end-quote’ moment. This helps to lend a real sense of truth and honesty to the film – yet not what Herzog calls ‘an accountant’s truth’. That is to say, he is someone entirely at ease with a degree of fabrication, staging and re-staging in his films. Witness the bizarre yet compelling sequence featuring the coroner and his report, for an example of how Herzog rejects the ‘rules’ of traditional documentary making in favour of pursuing his ‘ecstatic truth’. We are often told how a good documentary often allows the viewer to ‘make up their own mind’, and there are definitely varying responses to Grizzly Man. However, Werner Herzog doesn’t shy away from giving us his. What’s so refreshing about this is that it is, again, a rejection of the tired norms which are ubiquitous in factual films. There is a certain contempt for the audience evident in the idea that the author can be removed – as if we are to forget that someone in fact made the film, and we may be looking at the ‘real’ world. When Herzog, in his voiceover, intones ‘I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder’, it’s clear who’s show this is. The fourth wall lies in rubble as he is shown listening to the audio tape of Treadwell’s death, imploring to an ex-lover – ‘You must never listen to this’. I urge you to seek out the film, and indeed any of Werner Herzog’s work. He is someone who understands the label ‘documentary’ to be something so much more complex and fluid than just ‘non-fiction’. Just for fun, I’ll leave you with some of his quotes.

 

  • “That man is a head taller than me. That may change.” – Don Lope de Aguirre” in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (1972) English title:Aguirre: The Wrath of God
  • “You are all wrong” – Responding to booing crowds at the Berlin Film Festival, who disapproved of his Lessons of Darkness (1992).
  • “Well they are very frightening for me because their stupidity is so flat. You look into the eyes of a chicken and you lose yourself in a completely flat, frightening stupidity. They are like a great metaphor for me… I kind of love chicken, but they frighten me more than any other animal.” – About chickens, on the Signs of Life (1968) DVD audio commentary (2005).
  • “I am so used to plunging into the unknown that any other surroundings and form of existence strike me as exotic and unsuitable for human beings” – 31 May 1981 diary entry (pg. 248 of Herzog’s book Conquest of the Useless)
  • I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder. – “Grizzly Man” (2006)

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