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An outdoorsman faces that fatal fluff

`Sheep Man' pokes fun at Werner Herzog's documentary on the late Timothy Treadwell.

October 18, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

The film opens with a familiar scene: a blond man in a Prince Valiant haircut, dark sunglasses and a wool cap, cooing to an uninterested creature grazing in the background.

No, it's not Timothy Treadwell, the self-anointed bear guardian who spent 13 summers living among grizzlies in the Alaskan wilderness only to be eaten, along with his girlfriend, by one of the bears he sought to protect.

Instead, it's the mop-headed Jonathon Snackwell, a bewildered animal lover who dedicates himself to protecting the docile sheep of New Zealand by living among them for eight days, only to die in a snot-spewing sneezing fit caused by "wool-related allergies."

Comedian Jeff Richards plays the runny-nosed Snackwell in "Sheep Man," a mockumentary that pokes fun at "Grizzly Man," Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary about Treadwell's bizarre life and death among the bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park and Preserve.

"Sheep Man," a 15-minute production that premiered this summer at the New Zealand International Film Festival, screens Friday at the ArcLight Cinema in Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Film Festival. This irreverent spoof is a collaboration by Los Angeles film director Ron Eigen and Richards, a veteran of "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV."

It's a film of silly, sophomoric humor that raises the comedic question: How long must we wait before we can laugh at tragedy?

Herzog's 2005 documentary showed Treadwell as an obsessed bear fan who was convinced his boundless love for the animals would keep him safe as he lived, ate and slept among them. "Grizzly Man" featured scenes from the nearly 100 hours of footage shot by Treadwell before he was mauled to death in October 2003.

The most disturbing scenes in "Grizzly Man" show Treadwell dancing on the line between obsession and insanity. In one scene, Treadwell baby-talks to a 1,000-pound bear he dubbed "Mr. Chocolate." In another, he jumps into a lake to pet a swimming grizzly.

For the makers of "Sheep Man," enough time has passed that we can all laugh at the absurdity of such scenes.

"You have to push some boundaries at different times to see where those lines are," says Eigen, who produces and directs music videos and shorts for Comedy Central.

Richards, best remembered as Drunk Girl in "SNL," says: "It's sad when people die but it's hilarious the way some people die."

Richards and Eigen are not alone in holding this attitude.

The Internet has already premiered several "Grizzly Man" spoofs, including parodies called "Hedgehog Man," "Gosling Man" and "Grizzly Bear Man." All of these star a mop-headed, high-pitched talker who is killed at the end by the animal he vowed to protect.

"Sheep Man," however, is the first spoof to make the jump to the theaters.

The idea for "Sheep Man" came to Eigen and Richards when they were in New Zealand last winter, filming a series of comedy shorts and music videos for an upcoming DVD. They saw the potential for a "Grizzly Man" spoof when they ventured into a rugged New Zealand countryside with a 4-1 ratio of sheep to people.

Even Herzog, the accented narrator of "Grizzly Man," is not safe from their barbs. In his own documentary, Herzog is a sympathetic voice who says Treadwell's sentimental view of bears borders on being delusional. In "Sheep Man," the accented narrator (played by Richards) goes a bit further, saying, "It was almost as if Snackwell transcends the bounds of common sense into a brand of lunacy all his own."

One of Treadwell's biggest supporters think it's OK to laugh at the movie now.

Jewel Palovak, executive director of Grizzly People, the Santa Monica-based preservationist group that Treadwell founded, was not offended when she came across a "Sheep Man" trailer and several other spoofs on the Internet.

"I have a dark sense of humor," she says. "I take this stuff with a grain of salt."

She believes that Treadwell himself -- were he alive today -- would also be laughing. "I know that Timothy wouldn't want to be the butt of a joke but -- what is it that they always say? -- imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," she says.

Herzog could not be reached for comment.

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