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On Treadwell's turf

Werner Herzog talks to Joe Robinson about nature versus human nature in a new documentary based on the life of the late bear photographer.

August 02, 2005|Joe Robinson | Times Staff Writer

The line between ambition and madness is a fine one, often separated only by the fickle veneer of success. It's a twilight zone at the core of many of director Werner Herzog's films over the years, including "Grizzly Man," his documentary that opens Friday about Southern California-based photographer Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear chronicler who was killed in 2003, along with his friend Amie Huguenard in a bear attack.

Like some of the best-known characters in Herzog's feature films -- the maniacal conquistador in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" or the would-be rubber baron in "Fitzcarraldo" -- Treadwell was driven by a grand obsession: to document the uncorrupted world of grizzlies at Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve, and, in the process, protect them from human intrusion and make himself a nature film star.

Treadwell is definitely part of the gang, acknowledges Herzog, whose documentaries have tracked tribes in the Sahara, the apocalyptic oil fires of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the devotional stamina of Buddhist pilgrims. "There's a family of men out there, and Timothy fits seamlessly into it," he says.

These characters tend to be misfits with outsize temperaments on Odyssean ventures doomed by the grandiosity that hides their weakness. A man with a troubled past and no naturalist training, Treadwell reinvented himself as a wildlife photographer. He spent 13 summers documenting and hanging out perilously close -- recklessly so, said detractors -- to wild grizzlies in Alaska. The flamboyant Treadwell found purpose, redemption and notoriety from the bears, but his hubris unleashed primordial forces that cut short his maverick film career.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 27, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie opening -- An article in the Aug. 2 Outdoors section said the documentary "Grizzly Man" would open Aug. 5. The movie opened Aug. 12.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 30, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie opening -- An article in the Aug. 2 issue incorrectly said that the release of "Grizzly Man" was Aug. 5. The movie opened Aug. 12.

With an innovative mix of Treadwell's Alaska footage (some of it riveting, such as a bruising clash of two grizzly titans), interviews with friends, family and investigators and his own narration, Herzog has crafted a nature film that's really about human nature, the grizzlies shining a mirror on the thrall of consuming aspiration and romanticized wilds. On a break from shooting a feature film in Thailand, Herzog talked about "Grizzly Man," his own experience in the wilderness and, as is his wont, roved a wide verbal terrain.

Question: Before Treadwell's death, he was perceived by some as a naive crackpot who ignored basic safety precautions. There's the scene in the film in which he wades in his underwear into a river where a grizzly is swimming. He reaches out and pats the bear as it gets out of the water, and the bear snaps back. What do you think made him want to get so close to grizzlies?

Answer: We can only guess. But I think being near the bears and believing in his role -- which was largely fictitious, that he was needed to protect the bears -- probably redeemed him from his demons. He was haunted by demons. He had been heavily into alcohol, had a near fatal overdose of heroin. Probably he needed the bears and the presence of the bears more than the bears needed him. Because if I protect bears, I would not protect them from 6 feet. I would go out to the bay, where the planes and boats are landing, and chase them off. In his 100 hours of footage and in my film, over and over he tells the bears how much he loves them. He repeats and repeats and repeats it. I think you should not love the bear, you should respect the bear and stay away.

Q: In the film, the curator of the museum in Kodiak says just that.

A: He's an Aleut. He's in both cultures, a native who grew up in a small village on Kodiak Island, but he holds a PhD from Harvard. He says that, since time immemorial, we respect the bear and we keep our distance, and it would be a disservice to the bear to step close. It's a lack of respect, a lack of understanding the boundaries of your humanness and the bearness of the bear.

Q: There's a lot of tension in the film because of Treadwell's proximity to the grizzlies, and he often talks about death. It's almost as if he has a death wish. At one point he says that his agenda would be advanced if he were not to come out of the wild.

A: He was right about that, because he wouldn't have drawn that attention if he hadn't been killed by a bear. Yes, sometimes I do have a feeling that there was something like a death wish. At the same time, [he has] a vigorous joy of life and [is on a] quest for himself and a quest for putting his life in order, in driving the demons out. The man was magnificent and full of life.

Q: Several people in the film, and you yourself, say that he crossed some kind of invisible border. How would you describe that line?

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