Vannatta, Cameron ENG 106 23 FEB 2012
Herzog’s Portrayal of Treadwell
Throughout the decades, insanity has plagued mankind. Famous cases of alleged insanity could include Britney Spears, Howard Hughes, or even political figures such as Adolph Hitler or Muammar Gaddafi. What made these cases so famous was the flare. These were larger than life people doing outrageous things. All it took was the media to blow up the situation and make the masses aware of what was going on. Put all of that together, and these people have been immortalized by their insane personas. Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” is a documentary about the work of Timothy Treadwell. Herzog used his influence and the power of the media to display Treadwell’s actions and make him an icon. What is seen on screen shows a man losing his grasp on reality. The film shows and critiques Treadwell’s life with grizzly bears in Alaska. This film, like others, was meant to both entertain, and make a point. It educates its audience and provokes thought about what Treadwell did during his time in the wild. While looking at the movie itself from a critical perspective, however, I noticed Werner Herzog’s subtle portrayal of Treadwell. Where most would see Timothy’s work and the resulting tragedy, I saw the story of a man slipping into insanity. Herzog’s documentary shows a man’s detachment from reality through Treadwell’s film, personal testimonies, and even the presentation of the film itself. Timothy Treadwell may very well have been perfectly sane.
Sane or not, this film displays a man who was detached from reality. Without blatantly saying “Timothy Treadwell was nuts”, Herzog managed to hint that something was indeed wrong with Treadwell by his chronological outline of the film. Merriam Webster defines insanity as, “a severely disordered state of the mind usually occurring as a specific disorder”. Over the course of the film, we see Treadwell, as a character, grow into a role that mimics this definition. In the first portion of “Grizzly Man” we are introduced to Treadwell and briefly familiarized with his work. Herzog explains that Treadwell had studied and protected the bears. Between his annual trips to the Alaska wilds, Timothy traveled and shared his research with schools. One may argue that he is shown as a scientist, conducting research. Once that background is established, we begin to see more of his work in the wild. The audience is exposed to more and more of Treadwell’s hours of documentation. It becomes immediatly evident that he is at peace with his surroundings. He is calm, cheerful, and enthusiastic. Treadwell shares his relationship with many of the animals and takes on more of a “child-like” role. By now, we’ve seen Timothy’s role transition from a scientist conducting research to a child, carefree and detached from the rest of the world. As the film continues, the audience witnesses Timothy’s recordings that act more like entries in a diary. He shares his own personal, many times passionate feelings and thoughts. We see his reactions toward poachers, critics, and even the government. Treadwell is seen performing many rants and even tantrums. He gets so involved in his own hatred for those who he thinks would harm the bears. At this point, Treadwell’s role shifts from the carefree child, to the enraged or irrational man who rejects reality and society. In the film, Treadwell’s video clips are not dated, but Werner Herzog’s chronologically places them in a way that shows Timothy’s role transition from an intelligent, rational activist to a man who rejects reality and is angered by society.
Herzog’s layout of the film certainly suggests insanity, but there is also proof in the material that is presented. Along with Treadwell’s personal recordings, the film presents expert opinions, interviews, and other emotionally driven content. Treadwell’s video recordings may be the most substantial evidence of insanity. Spending most of his time alone, Timothy often had only the camera to speak to. He is often shown speaking to the camera as if it were a close friend, or even a psychologist. With the camera, he discusses things like his own sexuality. The audience can almost detect an tone of denial in his confessions. When playing with or admiring the animals he interacts with(foxes, bears,etc.), he acts very childish, giving names to the animals, adventuring with the animals,and often viewing the bears as wondrous, fantasy creatures. As noted before, toward the end of the film, Treadwell is portrayed as a very angry, fanatical person. He goes off on fiery rants and tantrums. He repeatedly yells expletives at the camera and confesses his hate of those who oppose him. Whether calm or frenzied, Treadwell claimed that he would die for those bears, on multiple occasions. Many argue that this is a wildly unrealistic philosophy because he was willing to die for something that killed him without a second thought. During his time on camera, Timothy Treadwell refuses to act as one would in a civilized environment, which is shown as a recurring behavior. This is further proof that he rejected reality and society and preferred the wild. These are signs of a man who has, or is slipping into insanity. Timothy Treadwell’s background is briefly looked into during the film. Given the historical information that Herzog shared in the film, we can further support the idea that Herzog portrayed Treadwell as insane. Interviews conducted with Timothy’s family and friends seem fairly consistent. It’s stated that he had lived a difficult adult life. Treadwell, at one time, had a problem with drugs and struggled with an acting career. By sharing this with the audience, and
showing the result (Treadwell’s time in the wild), the film suggest that this kind of difficult life can cause a man to lose touch with reality. Timothy may have used his time with the bears as a way to escape an unwanted lifestyle. Werner Herzog conducted many interviews with people both associated with Treadwell and people involved with the aftermath of his death. While the interviews with Timothy’s family and friends portrayed him as a hero, recovering from a rough patch, the interviews with others showed Treadwell in a different light. Herzog interviewed many people involved with the Timothy’s death investigation, including the pilot who discovered the remains, the coroner, and others who are familiar with the bears and area where Treadwell died. In almost all of the interviews that we see, the opinion is consistent. The “experts” claimed that Treadwell got what he deserved. They believed that he was wrong for what he did and that his death was inevitable. Many claim that he did not help the bears, but he actually may have further harmed them. Many thought he was insane just for spending time with wild grizzly bears. As stated before, this could have been Timothy’s own “way out”. By including these contrasting interviews, Werner again manages to discreetly slip in the idea that Treadwell gradually lost his sanity. While the “experts” argue for insanity, the obviously biased friends and family defend Treadwell’s actions. While Herzog’s film seemingly depicts Treadwell as a man who is slipping into insanity, it’s possible that the film is simply the result of Treadwell’s insanity. As stated previously, Treadwell had lived a rather difficult adult life. He struggled with drugs, relationships, and his career. This all came after what was described as a rather promising childhood. According to the film’s interviews, Treadwell went from a young man with much potential, to someone who just couldn’t get out of a rut in his life. That sort of emotional strain can dislodge any person in
today’s society. After taking years of what life could throw at him, substance abuse, failed relationships, and a failing career that never really took off, Timothy may have just regressed to his child-like mentality and used the bears as his escape from reality. Treadwell may very well have lost his mind, found an escape, and rejected reality. Rather than losing his mind as a result of his detachment from society, the film could be showing us the result of an insane man with motivation. Whatever the cause may be, “Grizzly Man” does not portray Timothy Treadwell as a rational human being. Werner Herzog is a professional film maker. In order to critique “Grizzly Man” as a film, we can not only look at the given material, but we must look at Herzog’s background. Being a professional film maker in today’s film industry, Herzog knows that a film must be entertaining to be successful. “Grizzly Man” is very informative and presents the audience with a very intimate view into Treadwell’s life. Herzog successfully took the resources he had and grabbed his audience’s attention. Rather than portraying Treadwell as an activist and potentially releasing a scientific documentary, Herzog portrays his protagonist as insane, and creates a dramatic tragedy. The layout of the film, the dramatic and graphic content, and every minute detail create a story that is hard to ignore. Werner Herzog transformed facts and records into a dramatic film about human psychology. Most will agree that “Grizzly Man” is about the life and tragic death of Timothy Treadwell. Werner harnessed the power of contradiction, emotionally fueled behavior, and chronological presentation to create a very subtle idea that Timothy Treadwell was a man who rejected reality and attempted to live in his fantasy world. The power of the media is amazing. What the masses saw on screen was Treadwell’s wild, unusual behavior. One could claim that it was blown out of proportion, but this tool has an amazing effect on the public’s opinion of Mr.
Works Cited Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Perf. Timothy Treadwell. Lions Gate Films, 2005. DVD. "Insanity." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. <http:// www.merriam-webster.com/medical/insanity>.