Grizzly Man

By Peter Calder, Reviewed by Peter Calder

Herald rating: * *

German film-maker Herzog's eerie and operatic features (Heart of Glass, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo among others) are among the most significant and magnificent works of the 70s and 80s. He has also shown himself to be a master of the non-fiction film, bringing a guilelessly quizzical sensibility to bear on subjects both arcane (Bells from the Deep, about Russian mysticism) and frighteningly immediate (the destruction left by Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait, in the awe-inspiring Lessons of Darkness).

Grizzly Man will probably be his most watched film - for all the wrong reasons. The movie, which has, incidentally, received enormous critical acclaim, fits snugly into the voyeuristic media culture we take for granted. It is distasteful, ethically questionable and more than faintly ghoulish. For what it is worth, I detested it.

The title refers to Timothy Treadwell, a self-appointed guardian of Alaskan grizzly bears and a man whose behaviour makes television's excitable Crocodile Hunter look like David Attenborough. Herzog never met - much less filmed - him; by the time the film-maker heard about him, Treadwell had been killed - and, along with his girlfriend, eaten - by the creatures he had sworn to protect. So Herzog's film is made of the dozens of hours of video footage that Treadwell shot over a dozen summers and in which, for the most part, he was in the centre of the frame.

American critics have found in Treadwell a flawed hero - "an American saint and fool," the New Yorker calls him - who failed to understand what he was dealing with. That seems to me an entirely wrong-headed assessment of a man who is plainly profoundly disordered. A college dropout, failed athlete and surfer and recovering alcoholic, Treadwell establishes, in an area he dubs the Grizzly Maze, what seems like a sort of petting zoo. The problem is that the pets weigh as much as cars and have claws like butcher's knives.

Treadwell, who is never armed and often alone, elevates anthropomorphism to heroic levels, giving the bears names like Mr Chocolate and Aunt Melissa and treats them like naughty children. In long rants to camera, he curses the park service (for never-specified acts of disloyalty towards the bears) and humans in general.

The defining moment may well be when Treadwell reveres a pile of droppings as though they were a holy relic. In that moment we glimpse what will become of him: in the moment of his death, he will achieve a moment of epiphany that is hard to distinguish from orgasmic ecstasy.

It's a sad spectacle, the low pointof a film that should never have been made.

DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog
RUNNING TIME: 103 mins
RATING: M, offensive language
SCREENING: Rialto from Thursday

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