The obsessional/delusional as objet trouvee…
The love-it or hate-it responses of the Amazon viewership to Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man illustrate quite nicely the theory that art exists not wholly formed on the page, canvas or celluloid, but somewhere between the viewer and the “text”. If you come to this film expecting a beautifully shot wild-life documentary and hoping for a picturesque education about bears and the Alaskan wilderness, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The wildlife footage – some quite remarkable, notwithstanding – was shot by a paranoid loner on a handycam. You’ll also have no-one to blame but yourself, since nothing about the film, even down to its name, let alone its maker, is suggestive for a moment that that’s what it’s about.
If, on the other hand, you come armed with some background knowledge about German director Werner Herzog and what he’s about – not ordinarily a documentary maker as such, although some of his feature films have an almost documentary quality to them as studies in human obsession (not least his own) – your expectations will be quite different, and I dare say your reaction to Grizzly Man will be too.
Over forty years Herzog has obsessionally directed obsessional actors (Bruno S, Klaus Kinski) depicting obsessional/delusional figures (Kinski as a psychopathic conquistador Aguirre searching for El Dorado, a barmy opera nut Fitzcarraldo with a dream of bringing high art to the deepest recesses of the Amazon rainforest, and as the good Count in Nosferatu: The Vampyre; Bruno S as Kaspar Hauser, a man trapped from birth for 20 years in a windowless dungeon in rural Germany, or in Strozsek as a man resemblent of himself vainly trying to escape his condemning past by going to America), in obsessional ways (Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo both filmed on location; in Aguirre Herzog allegedly held Kinski at gunpoint to prevent him walking out; in Fitzcarraldo when the script called for a paddle steamer being pushed by hand over the crest from one valley to the next, Herzog required his cast to actually carry out the operation).
Seen in this context, Timothy Treadwell represents a sort of found-object sculpture for Herzog: you couldn’t make this up, and for much of the documentary, Herzog is arranger, art director and chief contextualiser; providing background interview material only to back up his own view of the world, which he openly concedes is quite contrary to Treadwell’s (such as Treadwell’s was a coherent world-view: that’s a moot point). So to complain that Herzog is distorting; contorting; contriving an outcome is also (to my mind) to miss the point. Yes, he is, just as Marcel Duchamp was contorting the true purpose of a urinal by inverting it, signing it, and entering it in an art exhibition. That’s what artists do.
While it may be selectively edited, it is difficult, all the same, to conceive that what Herzog left out might negative the impression that Treadwell was an ignorant, paranoid, delusional burn-out, and that his most impressive achievement was not being eaten earlier.
Herzog is by no means completely unsympathetic to Treadwell, but he sees him not as a naturalist but a natural film-maker. Some of the footage – when Treadwell can keep his sorry face out of it – is quite extraordinary, and reminiscent of some of the German director’s own impressionist output, as Herzog remarks. As he was director, cameraman and star, Treadwell often had no alternative but to leave the camera running, and Herzog draws our attention to it – the random play of rushes in blustery wind reminiscent of the opening scene from The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, which reflects on a ripe stand of barley in much the same way. And the final shot of the film, wherein we see Treadwell hiking away from the camera towards the perils of nature – bears, mountains, brewing inclement weather – is not unreminiscent of Bruno Ganz’s departure into the Transylvanian mountains to confront the count in Nosferatu.
There are some aspects of the film I found less persuasive, and in particular Herzog’s melodramatic decision to film himself listening, on earphones, to an audio-tape of Treadwell’s actual death, then commending its possessor, a former girlfriend of Treadwell, to destroy it without listening. Herzog has managed to find a consistently weird cast of hangers on, ex lovers and Treadwell fans – and the oddest coroner I’ve ever seen – to backfill Treadwell’s story – and while this does lend proceedings the unfortunate air of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, I expect it is no more than anyone would find if one poked around in remote Alaska long enough.
I loved this film. If you did, I would heartily recommend a look at Herzog’s classic seventies output in particular featuring Klaus Kinski, which is anthologised in a pretty economical single edition: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski: A Film Legacy