Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On Warner Herzog's Grizzly Man

In TNR, Christopher Orr has an interesting take on Warner Herzog's latest documentary, Grizzly Man. While I don't agree with it, it's worth reading. Orr believes that Grizzly Man is only "ostensibly" about Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent thirteen summers in the wilderness of Alaska, living in close proximity to grizzly bears and who ultimately was killed by one of them. The documentary, in fact, reveals more about its maker Warner Herzog: a man who embodies a "cold, rationalistic" view of the universe (as opposed to a sentimentalized view) and yet, is tender-hearted enough to desire that his views not infect others, that his pessimism not interfere with their desire for transcendence, their belief.
It is the fervor of Treadwell's belief, more than the particulars of his circumstances, that seems to fascinate and perplex Herzog, the cultured European rationalist. For him, nature is cruel and cold and desolate. Surveying a gorgeous glacier near Treadwell's site, Herzog muses, "This gigantic complexity of tumbling ice and abysses separated Treadwell from the world out there. And more so, it seems to me that this landscape in turmoil is a metaphor of his soul." Responding to Treadwell's "sentimentalized view" of nature after the discovery of the dead fox, he declares, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder." (Whose soul is supposed to be in turmoil here?) Near the very end of the film, he confesses, "And 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." This conflict between Treadwell and Herzog, between delirious belief and cultivated nihilism, is at the core of Grizzly Man.
I happen to share Herzog's view, expressed in the film, that nature is cruel and cold and desolate. When Herzog makes the statement near the very end of the film, that "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", the camera has zoomed in on a bear's face and the sight is chilling. Animal faces don't really have expressions, it is as much a mistake to read too much into a dog's cute face as a bear's stony visage, but I felt sorry for Treadwell at that moment, sorry that the animals he loved so much could never reciprocate, were, in fact, not very capable for caring much for any one.

When Herzog declines to share with his viewers the final recording of Treadwell and his girlfriend's death, Orr finds in it evidence that Herzog is an "anti-evangelist":
He (i.e. Herzog) does not want Jewel (or us) to share his pitiless vision of the universe, whether because he himself has doubts or because he thinks a comforting lie is preferable to the horrible truth. He is an anti-evangelist for his own nihilism.
But it makes no difference really -- the bears' faces, the pitiless version of nature that comes through in the footage, the rain, the cold, the hardship, they all have already told the tale. Herzog is merely sparing us the horror of hearing Treadwell's pitiable cries; cries that would have robbed Treadwell's transcendent footage of its sheen, and in fact, would make Treadwell into the kind of tragic figure that he wasn't and never wanted to be. Indeed Orr's article, more than anything, convinces me that Treadwell did, in fact, find a kind of transcendence ("a chance to touch something purer, simpler, more divine") in living in the wild. (Or as Foucault would have put it, he looked upon it as a "limit-experience").

On another note, Orr finds it "remarkable"
that Treadwell was able to spend "many hundreds of days" without being attacked by a bear. In fact, he goes on as far as to suggest that Treadwell, in fact, had found a way to co-exist with nature, what killed him wasn't nature itself but a deviation from the routine, the "way" that he had found. That's an interesting thesis but Treadwell's footage makes it clear that it wasn't so. Treadwell ventured dangerously close to the bears and I am inclined to attribute the fact of his survival to pure luck. There are moments in his footage -- excruciating moments -- when it appears (to me) that he was dangerously close to being attacked. That he wasn't was probably a mix of providence and his own ingenuity. One might almost call it a quirk of nature, if only the term wasn't so ironic.

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