Grizzly Man

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There is a certain type of mental illness, the primary symptom being a tendency, almost childlike in its innocence of the harsh realities of nature, to identify animals with human values and emotions. At its most benign stage, the victim might find himself living among a flock of parrots in San Francisco. However, as the affliction grows more acute and starts to attack the reasoning centers of the brain, the unfortunate person joins groups like PETA. When all higher brain functions are destroyed, the victim will gravitate to terrorist groups like the Animal Liberation Front. When this disease reaches its terminal stage, the afflicted gets eaten by a bear.

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It may seem callous to make light of the death of Tim Treadwell, but if ever there was a candidate for the Lifetime Achievement Darwin Award, it would be this increasingly irrational recovering drug addict.

While Treadwell styled himself as an “eco-warrior” and the only protector of the Alaskan brown bears, in reality he seemed to be running like a scared little girl away from the responsibilities that come with being part of the human race. He credits the bears with saving his life when they really just gave him a place to hide from that life.

The reality, as pointed out by an ecologist in this Werner Herzog documentary, is that the Alaskan bear population is relatively stable and poaching is a rare occurrence. These bears had been doing just fine before Tim Treadwell came along and they will survive long after he and his unfortunate girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, became a bear’s lunch. I’m not sure how much stupidity it takes to stick around when an animal many times your size is having trouble finding food and getting hungrier by the day, but I’m certain that the amount would be measured in tons.

What is stunning about this movie is how a man who lived among these bears for thirteen summers could understand so little about the world he was inhabiting. When confronted with occasional reminders of the brutal reality of life in the wild, such as dead bear cubs killed by starving parents, this forty-something man gets choked up like a five-year-old who just lost a pet goldfish.

The most telling moment in this film comes in an interview with the curator of an Inuit museum, who speaks of the respectful distance that the native peoples of Alaska kept between themselves and the bears, a distance that Treadwell routinely violated. Perhaps his fatal mistake was not simply checking in with the people who had lived side-by-side with these bears for thousands of years. A little Inuit insight might have saved two lives.

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Over the course of this film, many of Treadwell’s friends tend to over-romanticize this man as a tortured but pure soul at peace with nature, and even director Herzog himself steps out of his role of an observer to defend the man’s choices at times. Fortunately, he doesn’t totally whitewash the truth about Treadwell and the portrait that emerges in the last hour of this film is much darker. Treadwell comes across as smug and self-congratulatory before he starts to slip into increasing paranoia and raging misanthropy. Tim Treadwell was a lonely, angry and disturbed man whose flight from his own demons claimed an innocent life in addition to his own.

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