Monday, September 05, 2005

Grizzly Man

"I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder." -- Werner Herzog, while narrating Grizzly Man

The above quote comes near the end of this incredible documentary -- really a character study of the fascinating Timothy Treadwell. For all my friends and family who have significantly more refined tastes than myself, I think I can finally recommend something you'll like in this.

Herzog says the quote while showing some of Treadwell's footage of a grizzly. In the footage Treadwell goes off on his fairly typical love diatribe for the beast, gazing on it with the kind of affection young children might have for their mothers. And the bears definitely are cute -- at least they are when they're on the screen, and you know they're really a couple thousand miles away in Alaska.

The documentary works on a wide range of levels. I particularly enjoyed the diverse range of viewpoints presented in the film -- we get to hear from parents and friends, park rangers and Inuit. And morticians...

The range of viewpoints I think helps present a fuller picture of Treadwell -- not really a hero, not merely a crackpot: the kind of person who strives toward the heroic in a time and place that doesn't need that -- the bears are doing just fine (30,000 strong with not much poaching in Alaska) and he's quite possibly endangering them more than helping them. But Treadwell also strives toward some kind of greater human experience and, misguided though it may be, that's worth something.

One thing that Herzog does particularly well is pull out the reality of the people he films. Frankly, some of these people are downright flaky. For them, Herzog shows us enough to see the strangeness, but also shows us a bit more -- their human emotions, which aren't strange at all.

He does the same with the un-flaky ones -- but for these a neat little dynamic plays out. We start with the regular interview, and during this the normal people often come off a little affected. The camera is an uncomfortable thing and you need a routine for it. But Herzog leaves the camera running after the scene ends, so that the silence drags out a little bit. And in those moments after the moment you can sometimes see the real person.

He makes this explicit (even explains the technique) when presenting the footage Treadwell shot. Treadwell's planned scenes always feature Treadwell in the foreground -- nature off to the side just a bit. But since Treadwell often set up the camera himself there'd be these moments before and after the shot where he'd be running to or from the camera, or moving around elsewhere.

And it's in these found moments that Treadwell's footage becomes art -- wind sliding through bushes or a pair of foxes at play in the fields.

A common misconception about entropy, held by both nihlists and intelligent design theorists, is that entropy is the tendency toward disorder.

In fact, entropy is the tendency toward equilibrium -- the gap between harmony and chaos.


W.C. Varones said...

I thought Herzog's narration was laughable, but the movie was still great.

Steve Peterson said...

Thanks for dropping by W.C.

I know there was a lot of laughing at Treadwell in the theater where I saw it -- but I also think that illustrated the necessity of Herzog's narration. He needed to be on the film talking so that we'd at least see some of the nobility Herzog saw in Treadwell's otherwise buffoonish character.

Anonymous said...

I hear that the director heard the entire killings and eatings? did they show his reaction listening on the headphones? (I read where this was possibly not going to be seen in the finihsed film)

Steve Peterson said...

Yah -- his reaction is in the film. And it's more than enough to convince me that I don't want to hear what's on that tape.

That said, I think including his reaction was a good idea, because it's worthwhile to make absolutely certain that the audience knows the story didn't have a Hollywood ending -- Grizzly Bears are an end result of a brutal process of natural selection and, if you forget that, you and people you care about may suffer horribly.