FILM GRIZZLY MAN DIRECTOR WERNER HERZOG

A moment of chaos


In the aftermath, Timothy Treadwell brings his camera down to the scene of the fight

For ten seconds or so the adversaries circle cautiously and adjust their posturing so that when all hell breaks loose neither animal will be disadvantaged. And it happens quickly: a mighty wrestling contest, savage and scrappy

Timothy Treadwell—the wildlife activist who documented his dangerous but profoundly affecting interactions with the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Reserve in over a hundred hours of footage (and who was killed-in-action in his thirteenth season)—is filming on a beach. The opening shot of a bear nicknamed “Mickey” (Treadwell’s affection for names and soliloquy is oddly endearing) is juxtaposed with the final delicate moments of a from-the-heart confessional, conducted by Herzog himself, in which he cautions Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend never to play the actual wild-track audio recording, which he holds in his hand, of Treadwell’s death. From stark alarmist warning, then, to seemingly banal documentary footage, Herzog’s film leaps a crevasse thematically and in terms of tone.

Treadwell’s footage now plays without cuts or authorial mediation and it is mesmerising. Two giant male grizzlies, one (Sergeant Brown) outstretched in the sand like a cat and the other (Mickey) ambling not a few metres away (between them a seagull or two), fight over a mate. For ten seconds or so the adversaries circle cautiously and adjust their posturing so that when all hell breaks loose neither animal will be disadvantaged. And it happens quickly: a mighty wrestling contest, savage and scrappy. Their jaws lock, manoeuvring to clamp onto chunks of neck; fur is spat onto the beach in clumps, shit falls from their weakened behinds; kicking, stabbing legs. You have probably never seen anything quite like this.

Herzog says midway through the documentary: “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” The scene has a gravity far more impressive and affecting than Herzog’s staged interviews with sympathetic friends or Treadwell’s own (rather self-serving) stabs at sentimentalism in multiple vignettes (for instance, a scene in which he finds a dismembered bear cub’s arm, or the carcass of a fox he was fond of). Of all the things that Treadwell could be (surfer, TV actor, recovering addict, mythmaker, tragic failure or as David Denby suggests in his Loners article for The New Yorker (8 August 2005) “washout” even), in this moment he is simply a video operator documenting an incredible encounter. And it feels like chaos.

26 October, 2007

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