- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2005

“Grizzly Man” has a slightly absurd ring that tends to mock the foolhardy aspects of a post-mortem case history that fell into the lap of German-born filmmaker Werner Herzog. It’s not hard to see why this sinister chronicle was irresistible to the director. Mr. Herzog has long been fascinated with protagonists who court calamity and go out of their skulls.

Mr. Herzog first heard about “Grizzly Man” while schmoozing with a documentary producer Erik Nelson, whose company is a prolific supplier of program material to the Discovery Channel. Mr. Nelson had access to about 100 hours of video footage exposed between 1999 and 2003 by an ill-fated wildlife activist known as Timothy Treadwell, who had made pilgrimages to Alaskan bear country since 1989.

At a certain point, Mr. Treadwell embraced a grandiose notion of himself as an indispensable protector of wildlife. The co-founder of a group called Grizzly People, he became something of a celebrity among similarly credulous environmentalists. A posthumous biographical profile, “Grizzly Man” recalls his strange career in stages that kind of creep up on his last taping session in the wild.

Accompanied in October 2003 by a companion named Amy Huguenard, Mr. Treadwell pitched camp on a favorite site in the Katmai National Park and Preserve. His video camera was running and pointed in the direction of disaster when a rogue grizzly mauled Mr. Treadwell and Miss Huguenard to death.

A lens cover prevented fatal images from being recorded, but the sound was on. The pre-eminent morbid tease of “Grizzly Man” finds both Mr. Herzog and a coroner named Dr. Franc Fallico reacting gravely to the soundtrack, spared us but summarized plausibly enough as a frenzy of bloodcurdling cries.

The movie interweaves selections from the Treadwell videotapes with sequences of Mr. Herzog as an inquiring chronicler. He returns to the fatal locale and interviews park officials who were not sympathetic to the victim’s activities and associates who were, notably a former consort named Jewel Palovak, who co-founded Grizzly People and owns the rights to the tapes.

We also meet his parents, Val and Coral Dexter, and some supremely odd ducks from Alaska, notably Dr. Fallico; a laid-back bush pilot named Willy Fulton; and a fond friend named Kathleen Parker, who presides at an ash-spreading memorial at sea.

The neurotically startling aspect of the Treadwell tapes is that they document more than scenery and alarmingly close approaches to wildlife. They also showcase the subject ranting in private to the camera, moments that transform mere self-infatuated vanity into dementia. It’s creepy enough to watch Mr. Treadwell talk about wild animals as pets and pals. It’s even worse when he revels in his own tirades. A failed actor (not a surprising revelation), Mr. Treadwell also makes a habit of retaking and commenting on his soliloquies.

It’s possible to regard this video diary, as Mr. Herzog does, as an invaluable record of a mind in disarray. But though Mr. Treadwell may have left a uniquely vivid account of insanity, there’s something profoundly repellent about it as diversion or mock testimonial. The filmmakers are obliged to pretend that Tim Treadwell was some kind of spiritual pioneer, though the evidence confirms a pathetic psychotic, in thrall to obsessions that lack redeeming substance for anyone, particularly nature lovers who might also value sanity.


TITLE: “Grizzly Man”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and evidence of dementia in a documentary format)

CREDITS: Directed by Werner Herzog. Produced by Erik Nelson. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. Editing by Joe Bini. Music by Richard Thompson.

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

WEB SITE: www.grizzlymanmovie.com


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