Grizzly Man Werner Herzog (including original footage shot by: Timothy Treadwell; USA; 2005; doc) subject: Timothy Treadwell
viewed at home in Newcastle upon Tyne on DVD; 2nd April 2020 during the plague
Now here’s a cute little fella….
Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog’s movie about Timothy Treadwell (TT), the Grizzly Man, self appointed guardian of the wild bears in an Alaskan wild life sanctuary.
Herzog splices together the material comprising his own interviews with relevant parties, with footage shot by TT in the last three years of his life, before he and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by a bear. Herzog presents TT as the phenomenon that he was; in his cautionary commentary voice Herzog disagrees with some of the ideas expressed by TT; and at the end of the movie offers a line of explanation in relation to TT’s death.
Seeing Herzog’s movie, I came to a quite different conclusion about the reasons for TT’s death than the director. Herzog talks about TT’s increasing alienation from the World of Man. This alienation, call it a line of retreat, pushes him deeper into the world of the bears with the direct physical dangers this entailed. My own reading of ‘Grizzly Man’ was that TT’s death was mediated by the forces at work both in US society and in American media that shape and conform the ways and means by which we form and use images of ourselves in the world.
As Werner Herzog edits clips from Treadwell’s footage into his movie, Timothy Treadwell like a Jack-in–the–Box pops up regularly in Grizzly Man. Treadwell is a prepossessing and insistent character, both in his immediate physical presence on screen and in his psychic make-up. But who is Timothy Treadwell? There is something in his look and presence that said to me, this is: Peter Pan.
Perhaps like me, Treadwell saw Disney’s Peter Pan at an impressionable age. An age when ‘girls’ were remote creatures and the simple male bonded life of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys seemed perfect. But it was Peter Pan’s refusal to grow up that struck the most responsive chord. A chord in harmony with the Disney belief that we are all really eternal children free to lead carefree lives following our dreams. This infantilisation of life has become an endemic part of US culture. And of course some guys never do grow up.
TT’s physical presence is dominated by his shock of blond hair, an unruly ungroomed outgrowth either flopping straight over his forehead down across his eyes or like straw thatch protruding out through his headgear. His face sometimes shielded by sun shades, has a youthful ageless quality. As TT darts through frame in multiple takes and retakes, I realised that I was watching an embodiment of Peter Pan. Treadwell was the little boy who never wanted to grow up. The man-child and hero of Disney’s cartoon, who had left La La Land and come to Alaska, to create his own Neverland.
Treadwell’s Peter Pan ‘look’ was matched by his performance. On camera he communicates the breathless excitement of an adolescent. In word and gesture we feel his uncompromising passion for the bears, the intensity of his self questioning, his self justification and his rage against the world that opposes him. TT in his being has caste himself as Peter Pan. He presides over a domain not of Lost Boys but of wild bears, surveying his kingdom with the innocent righteousness of the child determined to save them from the Captain Hooks of this world.
This merging by Treadwell of himself into a recast image of Peter Pan is not accidental. It is a result both of forces at work in his own nature and of course the psycho-social forces working through US culture, in general the Hollywood film and TV industry and in particular the Disney Corporation.
TT had a significant history in relation to La La Land. He quit college to go to Hollywood with the purpose of breaking into the movies. With an agent and auditions he is ultimately unsuccessful, failing (albeit narrowly) to land a prize part. What he will have learnt through all the photo-shoots and interviews is that in the movies, you are selling your image. He will have understood you need to be absorbed by your own image, to become the projection of an assemblage of adapted signs that signify the self. At its most extreme this is a process of demonic possession, and after his rejection there follows the death wish. Treadwell ends up in extremis, almost totalling himself on drink and drugs.
He survives but finds himself with a residual problem. He has spent years creating an image for Hollywood. This hadn’t been successful but with an undeveloped sense of self, his need for an image lives on. The Hollywood Treadwell is a battered and wounded, but to survive he will create another persona, continuing the process he had begun of arresting the development of himself as an actual person and the concomitant relations the define actuality.
Treadwell’s image is built around his physical presence: that mop of blond hair, the ageless face. Leaving La La Land, TT drifts back to his childhood connection with animals, and in the wild vistas of Alaska he finds the bears, the grizzly bears. Here with them, there is time and space to develop a new persona. Alaska becomes Neverland; TT becomes Peter Pan. In Neverland there are no agents no auditions no judgement. Wrapped up in the protective carapace of a Pater Pan image, nothing can touch him. He will stay forever young. Treadwell, as Peter Pan, will turn his Alaska experience into a Disney movie. And he will be the star.
When I was about ten years old I was taken to the cinema with my best friend Andrew to see Disney’s movie ‘The Living Desert’. This was Disney’s first nature film, his first feature film that was not an animation. I remember only one fragment: a rat scuttles out of its hole and the voice over exclaims: “Now here’s a cute little fella!” . What I retain from seeing the ‘The Living Desert’ is Disney’s seductive idea that the world of wild creatures is in some respects no different from that of man. This of course was the working assumption of the Disney cartoon output: that the human and the animal worlds co-merge through the interaction of their similar emotional responses. But in ‘The Living Desert’ this sentimental affiliation was extended to actual filmed images of animals and their behaviour. It was a significant development in a way legitimising Walt Disney’s commercially driven ‘ideology’ that animals and humans share similar feelings. Through Disney’s sentimental education we can understand each other.
Walt Disney’s ‘belief system’ underwrites the construction of his huge media empire, the Disney Corporation. For Americans and many others world wide it is the Disney Corporation’s product range with its particular anthropomorphic image of the animal world that mediates understanding of nature.
Along with his Peter Pan persona Timothy Treadwell seems to have shared the Walt Disney Corporation’s view of animals. Living close to the bears (and other animals such as foxes) he projects onto their behaviour and relationships an exclusively anthropomorphic understanding. Through his eyes they are seen as creatures from the Jungle Book, with human personalities traits and desires. Treadwell spends thirteen years in Alaska, increasingly cocooned in his own private world. After 10 years there he starts filming and the video camera allows him to to take measure of his own performance. The image becomes a real projection.
And then along comes Wendy.
No Peter Pan without Wendy. And of course Wendy is the outside force that has the power to break through the shell of Neverland. To crack open the enclosed male world and threaten it with castration.
Wendy is the new girl friend, Amy Huguenard.
The problem for TT is that the moment at which Amy becomes important, is the point at which Peter Pan the image and the bear movie have become seamlessly fused. The bears are Disnified and Peter Pan’s forever young. But it is difficult for images to love; they only love themselves. It is difficult for images to have personal relations; they only relate to themselves. Amy starts to become important to TT, he starts to feel for her, feelings that sound alarm bells that ring out the alarm at the inflexibility of the image. TT starts to feel an intimation of another type of development, intimations of a pressure to let Peter Pan go.
But this pressure immediately puts TT into a dilemma. He thinks Amy loves the image! Wendy loves Peter Pan! And Wendy is with him all the time. Peter Pan is the object of her gaze and if she should see that he is not really Peter Pan, she will abandon him. Under the existential threat from a schizo discrepancy between the virtual and the actual Treadwell, his imaged self responded by radical self affirmation
TT is trapped in his own image. In order to keep Amy he thinks he has to overplay Peter Pan; he has to live out the image of Grizzly Man, providing her with ever more extreme proofs that he is what he appears to be. A Disney character in a Disney world, he will push himself further into actions that conform to the image. To acquit himself he will be attracted into ever greater risky behaviour with the bears. Amy’s close proximity triggers a schizo crisis for TT. And this existential crisis precipitates both his and her deaths.So perhaps the explanation is that the image that shaped Timothy Treadwell also killed him. To live by the image; to die by the image; this is the story of Grizzly Man.