Saturday, January 07, 2006

To Live and Die in Katmai

I would like, if I may, to direct everyone's attention to the brown object standing in the background of this picture:

See it? It's a bear. And no, this picture was not created using PhotoShop. It's actually a still frame from the newly-released Lions Gate film, Grizzly Man - a semi-documentary about the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent 13 summers living among the grizzly bears of Alaska before he was finally attacked and killed in 2003.

I've been intrigued with this movie ever since its incredibly short run at New Orleans' Canal Place Cinema late last August. (The Canal Place Cinema, by the way, needs to hurry up and re-open.) Thanks to Katrina, I didn't get a chance to see it on the big screen, but I kept up with the official website ( and read everything I could find concerning its subject matter. Finally, after four months of waiting, I was able to get it on DVD at the end of December. (Oddly enough, the copy I bought at Best Buy was the last copy on the shelves. I must not have been the only one waiting for it.)

So here's the story: Timothy Treadwell was apparently a very troubled soul - your typical recovering alcoholic and drug addict - until that fateful day when he encountered a bear in the woods and was surprised to find that it didn't attack him. (Bears, I've learned, are not predatory animals.) This proved to be a life-altering experience for Treadwell, and it wasn't long before he was spending his summers in the Alaskan wilderness, camping among the grizzly bears and shooting over 100 hours of video footage with them.

There's a scene in Grizzly Man where filmmaker Werner Herzog flies over the areas where Treadwell camped, and I for one found it pretty amazing that anyone would want to camp in an area so far from civilization - especially if they were going to be surrounded by grizzly bears. But, that's kind of what the movie is about.

Far from being a nature film (because honestly, would I watch a nature film?) Grizzly Man focuses on Timothy Treadwell and his motives for going so far into the wilderness. According to the man himself, he was there to "protect the bears from human threat." But, as the movie points out, Treadwell was camping in Katmai National Park and Preserve, which means the bears were already being protected. (It would be like me going to Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg, MS, to protect the ducks.) Thus, the more you watch, the more you begin to realize that this wasn't really about conservation or protecting any animals. Instead, it was escapism on a grand level. Treadwell felt rejected by the human world and retreated to Nature, where, for four months at a time, he could more or less make-believe he was the only person on the planet. He had Paradise all to himself - kind of like Adam before God got the big bright idea to create Eve.

As Grizzly Man wears on, you see Treadwell becoming increasingly paranoid that outsiders are trying to get inside his Eden and bring harm to him and the bears. It goes without saying, of course, that the only person he had around to talk to about all this was his video camera. Not surprisingly, that's exactly what he does. This footage is what makes up the majority of Grizzly Man; and I must say that it's really kind of sad at times, watching him cry and vent into the camera...especially when you stop to realize that he's in the middle of nowhere, essentially talking to no one. Not even the bears he spends so much time with seem to pay him much notice. By the time the movie's over you're left with somewhat mixed emotions about him. On one hand, you could say he's more than a few fries short of a Happy Meal for putting himself in harm's way so eagerly (some have argued that Treadwell had an obvious death wish.) But, on the other hand, I think you really have to sympathize. Here was a troubled guy who had found some kind of peace and meaning in life, but whom unfortunately just didn't have the sanity to hold it all together.

As movies go, this is one I highly recommend - if only because I've never seen anything quite like it, and because it's so unusual and true. The interviews with Treadwell's family and friends were obviously well-rehearsed, but that was intentional on the director's part - an extension of one of the the film's main themes: the distinction between image and reality. If you're up for something a little different, do yourself a favor and check this one out. Or, if nothing else, at least watch the trailer at (it's right up there with "Man on the Moon" and "Pink Flamingos" on my list of all-time best movie trailers.) The fact that I'm writing an entire blog about it should say a lot about how much this movie has stuck with me.

* An interesting sidenote before I sign off this morning: I checked out the Katmai National Park and Preserve website to see if it makes any mention of Timothy Treadwell (from what I understand, Treadwell's relationship with the Park Service and the people of Alaska was not exactly a friendly one.) As it turns out, there's zero mention of Treadwell himself. BUT, if you go to the list of rules the park issues to its campers with regards to bears, you'll notice one rule that sort of stands out from the others: Gee, I can only imagine who inspired that one.


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