Thursday, February 16, 2006

Life without compromise: Grizzly Man

I just bought Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, depicting Timothy Treadwell's 12 years living among the brown bears of Alaska.

It's ineligible for Oscar nomination due to new AMPAS rules regarding previously taped footage.

What a shame. It's simply the most astonishing thing I've seen this year. Watch it and you'll really understand how rare and remarkable a film this is, on many levels.

Treadwell, 47 and girlfriend Amie Huguenard, 37, were killed while camping in Alaska's Katmai National Park. While the movie begins with this sad coda to a very original and compelling life, the story it tells through Treadwell's own video recordings is both a celebration of nature and open-ended question: who was Tim Treadwell?

Two hours of videotape cannot fully answer that question. Nor should it. In the real world, we're all a lot more complicated.

Despite the huge backlash against Treadwell (comments ranging from I think he's gay! to He was mental! to the downright awfulHe deserved to die) I don't think it's that simple.

He did what he wanted to do with his life. Yes, he was unhappy, a misfit who admits to not being able to hold down jobs or maintain positive relationships. That describes probably half of our world's populace.

But what percentage is passionate and fearless enough to actually toss aside regular life and go follow their bliss for twelve years, especially when said bliss can kill?
One can argue that his death was inevitable. However, he managed to live, up close and personal, for over a decade side by side with wild animals. He had to have done something right.

Watching Treadwell, his love and admiration for bears, foxes and other inhabitants of Alaska's preserves is obvious. As is his still-childlike nature in speaking words of love to them, musing about his own place in the larger world, and ranting against hunters or poachers. Yes, he does have issues - most of which he raises himself, before his confessional and confidante, the camera, and Herzog unflinchingly uses these to allow people to interpret Treadwell as they will.

These vignettes are both touching and unintentionally humorous. Which makes the film totally absorbing.

Imagine a camera in your home and you, completely alone for days or months, caught on film talking to your pets, musing aloud about various concerns, swearing from momentary injury. How unhinged would you appear? And yet, if talking to inanimate objects or pets when we're alone makes us crazy, we'd better start building bigger and better institutions immediately.

I wonder had Treadwell lived if he would've edited out some of his more personal video confessions, made at times when the camera was his only companion. At various points watching becomes voyeuristic in the squickiest sense of the word. You just know not all of this was meant for your eyes.

Dismissing him as crazy, wrongheaded or any other label misses the point entirely. He did precisely what he wanted to do with his life, and did it with equal parts passion, humanity and compassion. If nothing else, take that away from this remarkable dvd.
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