December 08, 2007

Grizzly Man: Company in the Wilderness

Grizzly Man is a film about Timothy Treadwell- a man who went out to live with bears in Alaska and was eventually after about 12 years eaten by a bear, along with his then girlfriend. Narrated by the great director, Werner Herzog, the film takes the form of interviews with people who knew Treadwell and were involved in the story of his death and alongside that videos that Treadwell took of himself in the wilderness with the bears, foxes and other animals. The nature footage is astonishing. Treadwell 'tended to want to become a bear' according to one source and therefore he got incredibly close to them- right up metres away from them, and hence his footage is extraordinary. The sound too is interspliced, we have Herzog's commentary and we have Treadwell's own descriptions of the bears that he lived with- whom he called names like Mr Chocolate, Melissa and Sergeant Brown.

Herzog tells us towards the end of the film that Treadwell's story tells us something about ourselves- the film is not so much a film about bears as it is a film about human beings. As Herzog describes it the stare of the bear is blank and bored, looking for food but seeking neither understanding nor feeling from Treadwell. Their brutal strength, their wild exhileration, emerges through the footage but as Herzog keeps reminding us in his commentary what doesn't emerge is any sense that the bears have an identity to relate to. Treadwell imagined they did. He imagined that the bears liked him, he talked to them as you would talk to a human child, coaxing them and rebuking them. There is a wonderful section of film where he tells off a fox for running off with his cap- but of course the fox can't hear him, the fox doesn't care, the fox is foreign- a blank canvass upon which Treadwell has drawn the marks of intelligence.

When we relate to the world, we draw upon it features. We are creators of our world- assigning to it names. I think no film gets closer to that reality than this documentary. When Herzog tells us at one point that nature is chaotic and violent, he refers in part to this. Part of this attempt to explain resulted in the creation of Gods, nymphs and spirits in ancient mythology who inhabited fountains and streams- part of it results in the creation of regularities and laws which we observe (this is not to imply equivalence between the two attempts- no more than the attempt to eat cardboard and to eat bread are equivalent though they meet the same need). The point though is that as humans we are inspired to give meaning to the world, to assign regularity to the world and to attempt to suggest that we understand it.

Treadwell out in the wilderness, abandoned and abandoning human society, sought to give the animals he had met a meaning, a regularity in their behaviour. He said he could control the bears and live with them- ironically he said it days before he was eaten alive in a spot just metres behind where he stood as he declared his security with the bears. Escaping human society was in a way his escape into this world of illusion. But escaping to the world of bears was almost more than that- it was an escape to a world where he knew that he was not alone. We seek company in order to escape the torture of our own loneliness, Treadwell sought that resolution not in the face of a hostile world, which he hated, but in the world of the bears which he loved.

Love becomes in this sense something that is given, and not neccessarily taken. Treadwell's image of the world was strange- but it reassured him. Frequently in his diaries he left the impression that he found human society difficult- he said repeatedly that he found it difficult to maintain longterm relationships with women, he was a failure as a student and as an actor, took drugs and drank too much. In his films what emerges is his rejection of society, rejection of its norms and his distrust of human beings- he sought fulfilment in a second life. He could begin again socially with the bears and furthermore he could and did treat them as dependents upon him. The bears could not object to his love- because ultimately they did not wish to understand it or him- he could offer it to them and imagine their grateful receipt. He did not have to harmonise the image of an individual with the imperfect reality- for within a bear rested no contradictory impulse. No object objects to being objectified.

Treadwell's life in some senses reveals something about the nature of humanity- for like most mental illness, Treadwell's problems were not ahuman but rather essentially human. What Treadwell struggled with was the problem of loving other minds: as soon as you love another mind you admit the possibility of dissapoinment, frustration and contradiction. We all love images that we have created out of discreet data points- points of experience, we love not people but the paintings of people that our minds create by connecting the dots of our mutual experience. But people are always there to contradict the paintings that we have drawn- to behave in different ways, to force us to redraw the picture. Treadwell never had to meet that contradiction, until he was eaten, because there was no reality to challenge the image he had created. The bears were a calm offstage presence onto which he could graft the image of a character- talking to them about their relationships and about their world as though it was a relationship or a world instead of an endless unconscious desiring present moment.

The last moments of Treadwell's life illustrate to us the nature of his mental illness- the illusion by which he lived. But until then he had the consolation of living with the bears in his own world- a world unconnected to reality, unchallenged by the words of another human being- uncontradicted. For him the moment of contradiction was a moment of consummation- his life's vision had become so distinct from reality that it led him into death.


Alex said...

Is it me, or is there more than a passing resemblence to Boris Johnson?