Friday, September 08, 2006

A response to Tomato Nation on the topic of The Grizzly Man

Here are two things I like:

1) Tomato Nation (and generally, bloggers who write involved commentary, rather than just blurbs and offhand references to online curiousa)

2) Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man

So I'm a little thrown off by Sarah's commentary on the film. She and I agree on all the particular points of character... we both see Treadwell as a madman, we both find ourselves slightly off the sympathy track, and we both laughed occasionally. Yet, we manage to disagree on the effectiveness of the movie as a whole. I loved Grizzly Man. She seems... mad at it, for some reason.

Here are her complaints, as far as I can sort them out:

1) "The man died, and his girlfriend died, and for their families and their friends, of course it's a genuine loss and I'm not trying to make light of that fact. But as awful as a bear attack is in practice, in theory, 'getting eaten by a bear'…sounds funny. "

2) "It's probably considered in poor taste even to hint that Treadwell 'asked for' that grisly end (no pun intended), but I think we have to acknowledge that, in a way, he did -- he behaved recklessly, he refused to get that the bears didn't love him back, he didn't take precautions, and if you go out into the Alaskan wilderness ... and you follow the bears around and fuck with them, sooner or later your number is going to come up."

I think, to Sarah's credit, that the central anger she is expressing is at the character (the actual person) of Treadwell. She spends a lot of her essay repeating, over and over, one of the central themes of the movie, that you can't just join nature and discover some sort of primordial harmony. Treadwell's life is obviously a testament to that, and it's one of the clearest messages in Herzog's documentary.

Sarah's anger at Treadwell doesn't interest me much. I know I'm never going into the woods to poke bears in the ass with sticks, so I see no real reason to be mad at him. If anything, I respect his dedication, I pity his self-inflicted downfall, and I raise my eyebrows at his sheer lunacy. In a way, I'm not interested in Sarah's condemnation because it flattens out an on-screen personality that Herzog really managed to fill out with some depth. A lot of idealism requires a certain naivety and a certain idiocy, and Treadwell's obsessive pathology makes him funny (as Sarah points out), but it also makes him sad, disturbing, and unpredictable.

However, Sarah isn't just mad at Treadwell. She also seems ambiently mad at Herzog, who she implicitly accuses of over-sentimentalizing an absurd life and a violent death. This is where I think Sarah falters in her interpretation, moving from disapproval of Treadwell to disapproval of his portrayal. By over-emphasizing Treadwell's naivety in her review, Sarah seems to suggest that Herzog was totally ignorant of it in his film, and this simply wasn't true.

When she's introducing the movie, Sarah says, "And then I may have chuckled a little. And this is the issue, with the movie and with Timothy Treadwell and with his demise." If Sarah thinks she's the only person who laughed at Treadwell's bizarre antics, then she's wrong. And if she thinks Herzog didn't shake his head in incredulous disbelief at Treadwell's behavior, then she underestimates his capacity to understand his own material. Herzog is placing his sympathy within a context of the character's comical ignorance, and by rejecting Treadwell's emotional presence on the basis of his personal flaws, Sarah spends her review stripping away the extra dimension that Herzog worked so hard to add to Treadwell's demise.