Year 7, Day 225 - 8/13/15 - Movie #2,119
BEFORE: Why did I watch Disney's "Bears", and not their other documentaries like "African Cats" or "Chimpanzee"? Well, I really only got "Bears" to tie in with this one - a lot of my film selection goes in pairs, because it usually takes two films to fill up a DVD, three if they're short. But the other selection criteria for documentary week is pretty simple, it's just me asking myself, "Is this a topic that I want to learn more about?" So as we'll see later in the week, a doc about one sports figure might make the cut, while another may not. I knew I wanted to learn more about this news story, so "Bears" was in, and "Chimpanzee" was out. I've only got so many slots left in 2015, and right now they're all spoken for.
THE PLOT: A devastating and heartrending take on grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzlies in Alaska.
AFTER: Umm, yeah, spoiler alert - this guy who thought he could live peacefully among the bears and protect them ended up feeding them instead, and not in a good way. I think I already know what my theme is going to be for the rest of this week, considering how controversial some of my chosen subjects are, I could just start each review with, "And then, there's THIS asshole..."
Treadwell had the best intentions, I think - he meant well, and I never say that as a compliment. He somehow got it in his head that the grizzly bears in Alaska needed to be protected, despite the fact that they live in a wildlife sanctuary. But in his mind, the weekly government flyovers weren't enough to prevent poaching, so he decided to migrate there each summer for 13 years, pitch a tent and live among the bears and foxes.
After about 5 years, he started videotaping himself, narrating everything he did, his opinions on what each bear should be named, and challenging himself to get closer to the bears, convinced that he spoke their language in a sense, and with calm commands he could, most of the time, get them to back away. But here's the thing - he must have known that someday, eventually, there would be a bear that didn't get the memo about how to deal with him.
Spending time alone in the wilderness is fine - but if you spend too much time there, you might go a little loopy. Talking to yourself, or to a camera, can help - but if you're off-balanced to begin with, the overall outlook is not good. Treadwell seemed like he was narrating a TV show or a movie that would never get made - in a way, he's part of this generation that's convinced that everything they do or say is important (it's not) so we have selfie-sticks and people on YouTube reviewing different snack cakes and too many reality shows about people who hunt ducks or work at pawn shops.
Director Werner Herzog had the task of taking this guy's hundreds of hours of footage and cutting them down to an essential portrait - it's another maddening process of asking oneself what to leave in, and what to leave out. Should Treadwell's vitriolic rant against specific members of the U.S. Park Service be included? What about footage of his mysterious companion, whose presence is only confirmed by the use of a handheld camera that had to be operated by someone? How much information do we need from the pilot who found his body? And most importantly, what about the audio footage recorded during the fatal bear attack?
Thankfully, Herzog chose discretion - but he also brought his German sensibility to analyzing Treadwell's actions and mindset. Where Treadwell saw a peaceful meadow with grazing grizzlies, Herzog pointed out the potential for murder. One man saw order in the "maze", the other saw only chaos. This probably made it easier for him to interview bear experts and park service agents who pointed out everything that Treadwell did wrong by living among the bears as he did. Besides the obvious danger, there are long-term effects by getting bears accustomed to having humans around - they'll be more likely to trust the next group of poachers that come around, so Treadwell was probably doing more harm than good.
Herzog also saw Treadwell's annual return to Katmai National Park each summer as a rejection of human society. Treadwell had already changed his name (he was born Timothy Dexter) and had told all of his actor friends in L.A. that he was from a small town in Australia (he was born on Long Island) and from many of his conversations aimed at the bears, he didn't seem to have much luck with women. While his effeminate voice and calm demeanor might lead one to suspect he was gay, he notably said that "life would have been easier if I were gay". That might sound definitive, but it also seems like the kind of thing a closeted gay man might say. But he also credited the bears with giving him a reason to live, and a reason to stop drinking - he had essentially assigned them the role of his "higher power" that they recommend in the 12-step programs.
Here's what I know about bears - they're nature's perfect eating machines. A few years back, FOX-TV ran a special called "Man vs. Beast" - they put people up against animals in a series of challenges, like having an Olympic runner try to out-race a zebra. They got the world hot-dog eating champion (at the time), Takeru Kobayashi, to challenge a Kodiak bear at - what else? - eating hot dogs. It was no contest, the bear shoveled 10 hot dogs at a time into its mouth with its giant paws, finished the pile that had been laid in front of it, then turned to Kobayashi and roared. I swear, if the bear hadn't been inside a cage, he might have tried to eat his Japanese competitor, who was himself stuffed with tasty hot dogs.
So there are mixed feelings about Treadwell, and this film demonstrates them by interviewing both his friends and ex-lovers, and people who think he got what he deserved. I think what bothered me more than his actions were his unnecessary words - I can't stand people who ramble on without really saying anything. Yesterday I heard someone in an elevator say "We could paint the room a color." Well, of course you're going to paint it a color, it's going to be SOME color after you paint it, so you only really have to say, "We could paint the room." Then she said, "They're going to replace the windows we have now." Again, you don't need to say those last few words, since they can't replace windows you DON'T have, so just say, "They're going to replace the windows" - the rest is implied.
Treadwell's monologues are filled with unnecessary verbiage - like saying "wild wilderness" or, "It's September 2000 and this is Expedition 2000, where I'm on an expedition in the year of 2000 to protect the bears. They really need protection, so that's what I'm here to do on Expedition 2000." Every repeated word is like a knife in my skull, and he would do multiple takes like this, just to get it "right". For whom? I can only imagine that a bear wanted to eat this guy, just to shut him up.
Starring Timothy Treadwell, Werner Herzog, Jewel Palovak, Warren Queeney.
RATING: 5 out of 10 bandannas