Grizzly Man - The Invisible Line

Thoughts On: Grizzly Man

This Werner Herzog documentary containing a compilation of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell reveals snippets of the man's life as a self-confessed 'kind warrior' who lived in close proximity to the bears of the Alaskan peninsula for 13 summers until his death in 2003.

I'm not a big fan of documentaries because, ultimately, anything intentionally filmed holds an inevitable degree of artifice. Documentaries thus constantly fight the illusion of cinema, which can be distracting, and so doesn't always interest me. I have always had a soft spot for natural documentaries though, those about wild life and the inhuman world. I dislike the human elements of documentaries, I'm not too fond of human stories, neither do I like stories or 'narratives' constructed from footage of animals. This is because of their artifice and indecipherable true nature. When dealing with real situations, real human lives, I'm not fond of opinion. Art's core is in perspective and so to project one's opinion on circumstances contorts them. This is fine for me in a world without effect (cinema), but our real everyday lives, not so much. However, Werner Herzog has constructed a film beyond the average constraints of a documentary. He explores the idea of nature as caught not only by the lens of a camera but the perceiving eye of a human. This film for me explores the epitome of artifice and does so without major prejudice. Before we start, the true story of the tragedy of Timothy and his girlfriend, Annie, is not what I want to talk about. This is because with that comes questions of a man I do not know, a situation I am unaware of and, ultimately, circumstances I have no need to be exploring. In the documentary there are questions as to whether Timothy was right or wrong in the way he lived and eventually died. Some say 'if it don't scare the cows, who cares? and also that it was what he wanted. Others say he 'got what he deserved' and that the way he lived was a 'disrespect' to bears. These are opinions found in the documentary, they are not mine. I ask myself if he was right or wrong and... I simply don't have an opinion. So, what I want to talk about is the film's profound effect on me - as it is enormously poignant. I also want to talk about the key philosophical points Herzog brings up throughout the course of the film about nature and indeed human nature.

This is the only film ever to truly scare me to my very core. With the opening to the film in juxtaposition to a minimal (ineffectual) face-off  Tim has with a bear in which he has to fend it off, backed by the looming threat, the inevitability, of Tim's end, a piercing fear is driven deep into my chest. The physical reaction I have is completely different to being creeped out by good atmosphere, than being shocked by a jump scare or disgusted by a vulgar display of pulp, blood, carnage and guts. What I feel, the bear mere feet from the camera and Timothy, when it simply flexes and the camera jolts is only comparable to what I can only describe as to be my greatest moment of weakness in life. Straight off the bat, I've not been through much at all, nothing in the way of traumatic. The smallest I've ever felt is as a little kid walking my old dog and coming upon a much bigger, seemingly violent, one. The dog was, no joke, up to my chin on all fours and, shit I don't want to imagine, on its hind legs. Set-up's simple. I turn the corner, and there it is. I freeze. WOOF!! My dog, a medium-sized Staff, cowers, rear dropping, tail coming between her legs, backing toward me, stopping against my shins. WOOF!! The dog bolts forward. Frozen stiff, a sinking dread opens my hand. I drop my dog's lead. I'm seeing this in slow motion, this beast of a dog, I don't know its breed, it was as big as a Great Dane, but not at all skinny with a strange off-balance look. This thing was a tank, a machine that emanated power with a deep, resounding bark that just marks terror in my mind. The thing is mid pounce, jaws open, I'm just hoping it's going for my dog and not me, and I'm not sorry to say that. WOOF!! I'm frozen. WOOF!! I drop the lead. WOOF!! It pounces. CLANG!! Yeah, the thing had an owner, a strong one at that with a thick chain lead. I swear I then blacked out. I can't remember what happened, I must have picked up the lead and me and my dog must have slunk past with some embarrassing exchange of apologies and reassurances. In truth, I just remember the fear, the sound, the sight and then being a good 100 feet from the thing.

That, if you've read my last post, is my 100% - my most trying experience (don't laugh). For a film to reinvoke that, I hope, says a lot. What the film, for me, captures is the precise moment when man faces nature, when he looks the tiger in the eye, knowing it'll pounce. Yes, I only dealt with a big dog, but give me a break, it's my only reference point. Assuming all humans work off the same mechanism, the fear I felt faced by a dog I knew could kill me if it wanted, has to be at least comparable to what Timothy ultimately doesn't feel. This man is something -  to say the least. For him to be able to stand before a live bear is beyond comprehension for me. My big, scary dog experience and Timothy's fearlessness in face of bears describes perfectly what Herzog means by the invisible line between man and nature being blurred. Fundamentally, humans are animals. Call it as it lies and we're either pretty crappy ones, like on the level of giant rabbits--we can nip and look weird, but aren't too formidable--or we're simply not animals any more. Over the course of time humans have constructed a solid and tangible divide between us and real nature. My once in a life time 100% is an antelope's every other heartbeat skipped, is a lion's every other roar of self-defence, is a bear's every other juttered breath below the mass of another bigger bear, its jaws clamped on its jugular. I've used the George Carlin quote, 'we're barely out of the jungle' before, but the distance between us and it is lightyears in retrospect - from where we stand now. My takeaway after staring blankly at the screen for a good while after the film had finished was simply that I'm glad we're not in a food chain any longer. What this film made truly apparent to me is that humans are incredibly fragile. Actually, that's not a complete truth. What the film did was make me feel fragile, like all humans are pathetically small.

What's most interesting about the film comes at the end with Herzog asserting that the film Tim shot is not an insight into nature, but into ourselves. What he means by this comes two-fold. It means what I just said above, which is the film calls out something in ourselves, allows us to draw our own perspective on nature. But the second fold pertains to something a lot wider than this film alone and links back to what I said in the very beginning. Documentaries are never 100% true or real as they capture light. I talk mostly in metaphors here, but, light reflects off of objects and is caught by our eyes. Such is perception--sight. Light reflected off objects and caught by a camera is cinema. It's stored perception, recycled when we watch it. In the same way eyes in a painting follow you because you aren't looking at Mona Lisa, but Leonardo da Vinci's view of her, films have a forced perspective. This here also links back to Timothy and the ethics surrounding him. Like I did with Silent Running, I could talk about perspective and give reason to why Timothy as a character is so likeable. But, what's of most significance is to recognise that Timothy is clearly a character, not a person, in this film. He performs for the camera, giving real insight into his personal self--but only as he wants us to see it. This film is about artifice as it is largely about a man presenting himself and his perspective.

We get to learn an awful lot about Timothy over the 100 odd minutes of the film, but most telling of who he is, in my opinion, comes with 2 key elements. The first  element is of his contradiction. Before I go any further, 'contradiction' in my books is not a negative term. It's simply juxtaposed states. The first example of this is with Ghost and the hat. Tim lives quite close to a family of foxes. At one point he leaves his hat out and a few investigate whilst Tim tells us he loves them. But, one of the little fuckers gets away with his hat and he never (as far as I'm aware) sees it again. What this symbolises is an incredibly human behaviour of social currency. Yes, your mother loves you with ever ounce of her flesh, but, as we all know, forget that one particular Sunday, or neglect one too many calls, and she's liable to hate you for a moment--at the least, be quite sour. What such a paradigm makes clear is that humans are not completely made up of one thing. They'd love to have you believe it, but that's a lie. Your mum loves you a lot, but not completely--but a lot is enough. What this has to do with artifice is, internal consistency isn't completely lucid. There's a norm, but it falls within bounds. A second example of contradiction within Tim's character comes with the rain in 2000. A delightfully human moment. Tom calls upon God, Allah and a floaty Hindu version of a deity to asks for them ti please give him and the animals some FUCKING RAIN!! From his love and need for the bears to be fed, the water levels to rise, comes some magnificent anger. All is glum, Tim is down, but then the rain starts pouring, torrents of it. And despite his tent caving in, he's back in love with the universe. Both of the above cite that people act in tandem with circumstance. We act as we need to, or feel we must be perceived. Hence, artifice, fabrication.

The second key element we get to learn about Tim that is telling of a general human nature comes with his incomprehension. There's two key instances of this. The first comes when Tim talks, again, about his foxes and how they are hunted. He says 'if only they (hunters) knew' how wonderful or lovely the foxes really are. He furthers this tone with his idea that animals are 'misunderstood'. Tim tells, and shows us, about what he calls 'the challenge', 'the moment'. This is what we were talking about before. It's standing before the bear that's liable to attack. If Tim makes the wrong move, behaves inappropriately, he's dead. For this reason, Tim asserts that if animals are approached correctly they are safe. In short, they are misunderstood because of the experiences humans have with them. However, for Tim not to openly comprehend the flip sided argument is why he is most criticised. He sees a universal love and unity when he looks at the world, Herzog on the other hand sees that the common denominator throughout the universe is in fact chaos. Who is right? A matter of opinion. I lean toward Herzog personally. But, Tim stands in opposition and his 13 summers remain as evidence for the contrary. Tim doesn't express the same critical thinking. He, as the film as his characterisation of himself for the camera expresses, is set in his views and sees not why fox hunters wouldn't want to get to know a fox. This again cites artifice as Tim tries to polarise the argument on whether humans and animals can coexist. As in most debates with foundations in opinion, the only true answer is probably within a mid-point of sort. Before I move on, another example of this as Tim's mindset comes with him finding dead bears, or the fox he knew torn apart by wolves, and refusing to accept the occurrence of predators in nature. Again, by putting up a façade of incomprehension Tim shows himself to be more of a character than critical thinking person.

What has 'characters' and 'artifice' got to do with anything though? Well, I believe that this film's key teaching point is that people are cotton wool coated in silver. Mirrored sponges. What am I going on about? What I'm trying to say is that humans have a huge capacity to absorb and perceive so much, yet we chose not to, or to pretend that we don't. This links back to cinema and art in general. When faced with a person, just like a film or painting, you are facing a forced perspective. There's no meeting the real Mona Lisa, there's no meeting anyone. Just the picture they paint of themself. This is the hugely philosophical argument behind this film. It shows that the world is nothing more than perceived. With the other huge questions it also poses, it resultantly gives us the answer at the same time. Here's a fun one: what about aliens? This films shows a huge rift between us and animals. Human's cannot form any interspecies bonds beyond pets, farmed animals and zoos. What Tim represents, or wanted to, was a future where animals and humans can better coexist, the invisible line between us blurred. The tone of the movie really drives you in the opposite direction. If we can't completely connect with any of the millions of species on this planet, only stay out of each other's ways or manufacture circumstances in which they can be conditioned to live with us, are we at all ready for aliens? By the way, aliens exist. By this I mean life on other planets. It's an inevitable probability. Anyhow, there are plenty of test down on Earth. Are we at all ready for those beyond our safe blue sphere? Big questions I'll leave to you and the comments. But beyond the hypothetical, the films makes a huge point that the future is nothing more than a path that will ultimately be trodden, it's not perceivable as of now for the same reason a tree fallen in a forest doesn't make a noise. Here is the film posing questions, but then showing that, again, the world is nothing more than perceived.

Overall, this film is about perception and the lines drawn not only between ourselves and animals, but each other too. We are all trapped in our own worlds, just trying to project some kind of character and this is what the film shows with poetic precision. Who are we? An unanswerable question. Of  course you know, but such a thing is incommunicable. Who does that leave us? Where does that leave us? What can be done? Such is life's dilemma as mirrored sponges...

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