Saturday, May 29, 2010

Grizzly Man

I quite frequently dressed wild animals in the tame costumes of imagination.
--Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Captain Midnight has been remarkably patient with me for several weeks now, as the Netflix DVD I requested has rested atop the television, gathering dust. But in my defense, I couldn't just plunk Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man in the player and watch it whenever. I needed to pick the right moment, for several reasons. I wanted to be able to devote some attention to the story. Then, too, there's a relatively sheltered teenager in this house -- one who loves animals, one who hates the sight of blood and the very thought of gore, one who eschews swearing so much she won't even speak the word "hell" when she's reading from scripture. Knowing what I already knew about the manner of Timothy Treadwell's death, I didn't feel comfortable letting her watch this movie with me.

I think I was right to be concerned. Grizzly Man, although a fascinating look into the mind and motivations of a modern-day environmental Don Quixote, is not easy to watch. And it's not just because one is aware that Timothy Treadwell (and his hapless girlfriend) were killed and eaten by the very grizzlies he repeatedly said he would die for. It is the study of a man who, driven by mental illness and unresolved personal issues, retreated from the human world into an Eden which existed only in his mind; a man who loved wild animals so much he mentally anthropomorphized them to the point where he lost all healthy respect for the danger they represented to him and others.

Watching this film brings up a quotation usually attributed to Mark Twain: "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." As far as we know, of all the living things on earth, humans are the only ones who possess self-awareness, the only ones with an innate sense of right and wrong, and thus the only ones who have the capacity to commit moral or immoral acts. We are the only ones capable of acting hypocritically. But God or nature works against this unique human behavior in an odd way; as we persist in our play-acting, we begin to become the very thing we once only pretended to be.  Our hypocrisy eventually metastasizes into reality.

Timothy Treadwell must have begun with the understanding that wild grizzlies were dangerous creatures. He repeatedly states, in self-captured footage, that wild animals are hazardous to human beings. Bears can maim, kill, decapitate. But over time, one begins to note a change in him -- the result of the repeated decision to ignore that healthy sense of danger in order to get closer to the bears. Over time he begins to develop a kind of magical thinking regarding the bears and his own power over them. He sees himself as being the Great Exception, a kind of mystical guardian of grizzlyhood, the one whom the bears will not touch because he is there to protect them. Treadwell claims he knows the bears' language, yet one sees footage of him chatting with them and cooing over them in baby talk, or scolding them like naughty children or bad dogs. He reverently touches bear scat, enthusing over its warmth and the fact that it came from inside one of his favorite bears, as though it were a religious relic bestowed by a holy being. "I'm in love with my animal friends," he sobs. He scratches the heads of wild foxes sitting atop his tent as though they were tame puppies; he tells them, "Thanks for being my friend." He squats quietly on a rock in the river, clad in black and sunglasses, staring like a celebrity stalker at the bear before him. But when he sidles in and tries to pet a bear coming out of the river, the animal whips its head around at him and he backs away, realizing for the moment that he's gone too far.

Over time we begin to see the reasons why Treadwell might have tried to escape into the wilderness. The human world disappointed him in so many ways -- he lost a college scholarship because of a bad back, he lost a role in the sitcom Cheers to Woody Harrelson, he nearly lost his life to a heroin overdose. He grew used to fictionalizing his own life, changing his surname and sometimes claiming that he was an orphan from Australia. He drank heavily, and there were a number of indications -- both in interviews with his friends and in Treadwell's increasingly irrational, paranoid and profane outbursts that he himself captured on film -- that he suffered from untreated bipolar disorder. And there are odd confessional moments where Treadwell, in his loneliness and isolation, reveals more to his camera than perhaps he intended. This particular monologue shows up about halfway through the film:
I always wished I was gay. Would've been a lot easier. You know? You can just "bing-bing-bing!" Gay guys have no problem, I mean, they go to restrooms and truck stops, and they -- perform sex. [nervous laugh] It's like so easy for 'em and stuff. But you know what? Alas, Timothy Treadwell is not gay! Bummer! I love girls! And girls -- girls need a lot more -- need a lot more, you know, finesse and -- care, and I like that a bit. But when it goes bad and you're alone, it's like -- well, you know, you can't rebound like you can if you were gay. I'm sure gay people have problems too, but not as much as one goofy straight guy named Timothy Treadwell. Anyway, that's my story. That's my story.
Not that I've put myself into that many situations where the subject would be expected to arise, but in all my 40 years of life, not once have I heard a straight guy honestly express envy of the sex lives of gay men. Anyway, that's his story.

Rather than dealing with these unresolved issues head-on, Treadwell increasingly projects his inner demons into other people and things: the U.S. government, the Park Service, other campers, "poachers" who never quite seem to show up, and people who are simply seeking him out based on his quasi-celebrity status. He screams, he curses, he rants at the camera. When a drought puts his bears in danger, he begins to shriek at every deity he can think of to send him rain -- and, comically, the rain arrives in such torrential plenitude that it bends his tent poles and leaves him trapped in his partly-collapsed shelter for weeks.

The film isn't perfectly realized. In addition to Treadwell's own footage, Herzog interviewed a number of Treadwell's friends, family members, acquaintances, and the coroner who inspected what remained of Treadwell and his girlfriend. There are painfully awkward moments, as when the coroner gives Jewel Palovak of Grizzly People the watch Treadwell was wearing the day he was attacked; the entire scene feels staged and phony. But there are also moments that ring true, as when Herzog listens to the audio footage of Treadwell and Amie Huguenard as they are attacked, killed and partially eaten by hungry bears, and is so disturbed by it he tells Palovak she should destroy the tape without ever listening to it. (Thankfully, he makes the right choice NOT to include this audio in the film.)

It's a very human trait to anthropomorphize animals, particularly the ones to which we feel the closest. Cats and dogs have lived with humans for so many millennia that it's easy for us to think of them as having human traits -- as being, as the bumper sticker has it, "little people in fur coats" -- forgetting that we specifically breed pets for the human-like characteristics that make us feel most comfortable around them. But even tame animals still have wild characteristics -- and wild animals, as beautiful and fascinating as some may be to us, are in the end essentially alien beings whose minds do not work as ours do. To ascribe to them human characteristics is to ignore the essence of their being, to ignore the fact that they are different, and we do that at our own peril as well as theirs.

Over the footage of a large grizzly -- possibly the very one who killed Treadwell -- staring dully toward the camera, Herzog narrates, "...what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell this bear was a friend, a savior." Because his retreat into the wilderness made it possible for Treadwell to dry out, stop taking drugs, and avoid some of his inner fears, he chose to see the bears not as dangerous predators, but as his life's vocation, his purpose and his salvation. Treadwell took all the things he wanted most from life and projected them into the bears; he treated them as the blank slate upon which he could draw his fantasies, mentally becoming the role he once merely play-acted, the spiritual gatekeeper of a kind of human-ursine paradise. But bears do not likewise project onto humans; they simply do what they must to continue living -- and when their usual food sources run low, they do not hesitate to eat whatever they can find, including other bears or the idealistic human who has spent too much time ignoring the danger all around him.

When we gather the money to buy a house, I plan on letting Miss V buy and keep a pet of some kind. I think it would be good for her to care for an animal. I also think it's important for her to understand that as much as we love pets and should treat them with kindness and gentleness, they are not and never will be human beings. It would seem to be a lesson too many adults have never learned.

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