A Very Late Earth Day Recommendation: Grizzly Man

I should begin by noting that I am using Earth Day as an excuse to push my own agenda: recommending one of my favorite films. (Of course, many people use Earth Day to push their agendas, so I should not feel singularly guilty.)  There are a couple handfuls of films that I can recall with bright vivid clarity even without having seen them for five or ten years. Grizzly Man is one of those movies. Unless I begin drinking more, it will never leave my memory, which of course means that it will eventually leave my memory. 

Ever since Grizzly Man and director Werner Herzog were snubbed at the 2006 Oscars (it did not even receive a nomination for best documentary), I have felt compelled to write about it in some form.  I do not believe that any “snub” from the Academy has ever made me angrier than this one.  Not only would the Oscar have clearly gone to the superior film, but the Academy would have also performed one of its unwritten functions: giving Oscars to individuals  (Herzog, in this case) with long distinguished careers who might never get another chance to win their first award. 

What particularly galled me about the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary was that the film that eventually won the award was March of the Penguins (2005), a nice documentary with amazing animal footage and a soothing narrative voice supplied by Morgan Freeman.   Despite the immense hardship the director (Luc Jacquet) and crew had to endure to film throughout the Antarctic winter, the film itself does little more than what a dozen other nature documentaries do.  March of the Penguins brilliantly captures animals in an extreme environment and provides pictures that would seem impossible to procure.  Yet the Discovery Channel does this sort of thing rather frequently, and I never look at their programs and think that they deserve Academy Award recognition. 

The contrast between the film that took home the statue (March of the Penguins) and the film that was not even nominated (Grizzly Man) is why I wanted to connect this post to Earth Day, environmentalism, and humans’ relation to nature.  Both documentaries deal with a species of animal that survives in brutal conditions and must deal with impending changes in their surrounding environment.  Beyond that, they share nothing in common.  March of the Penguins displays a false, anthropomorphic vision of nature. Penguin parents are like human parents.  Penguin babies are like human babies.  They struggle to survive, and we struggle to survive.  Therefore, our response to them and the environment should be dictated by such likenesses.

Grizzly Man, on the other hand, shows us that we cannot know nature as it is, only as we see it.  And if we saw nature as it was, it would not be comforting. Indeed, the film’s “star,” activist Timothy Treadwell, would have probably agreed with the philosophy encoded within March of the Penguins.  Herzog, meanwhile, exposes his audience to how Treadwell was blinded in his attempt to film the grizzly bears and prove how “human” they actually were.

I want to be clear and assert that Herzog’s documentary is in no way a screed against Treadwell or environmental activism. Herzog manifests great empathy toward Treadwell and Treadwell’s own filmmaking ability, yet he does critique Treadwell’s desire to see himself as a savior who alone recognizes the injustice occurring in the Alaskan wilderness.  Herzog’s film serves as a cautionary tale that illuminates the dangers of attempting to look at nature by looking into a mirror.  Formulating a response to nature requires more than formulate a response to ourselves.

Near the end of the film, Herzog shows some footage that Treadwell took shortly before Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear.  In a moment of deliberate narrative subjectivity, Herzog ponders whether or not the bear in these final images would become the very bear that would kill Treadwell.  In one scene the bear is swimming; Herzog comments that what might be interpreted as playfulness is desperation as the bear, desperately hungry, attempts to find food at the bottom of the river. 

In another, more haunting scene, Treadwell’s camera captures the bear’s face; its teeth, eyes, jaws, and tongue are perfectly visible.  (I can see why Herzog admired Treadwell’s amateur filmmaking ability.)  And here Herzog makes a declarative statement that this shot, like every other moment from Treadwell’s massive video library, contains not a single moment of reciprocity or humanity.  Nowhere, Herzog claims, does nature, as Treadwell sees it through the grizzly bears of Alaska, ever reflect back the humanity that we bestow upon it.  This final bear becomes the moment in the film were Herzog sees through Treadwell’s own video what Treadwell could not see.  Treadwell always felt that the bears saw him as he saw himself: a friend, an ally, someone who loved what they loved.  Yet Herzog examines this final bear and proclaims that not only did the bear not see Treadwell in this manner, but that it did not even see Treadwell at all.

That is nature at its scariest.  It would be one thing to know that nature and the beasts that inhabit it will one day seek vengeance upon humanity.  Knowing that it and they would behave as we might is comforting.  We can gird ourselves for the impending battle, but knowing that nature simply does not care, or even possess the capacity to care, is truly frightening.  It can neither love nor hate us; it will simply stare back at us with, in Herzog’s words, “cold indifference.”

I want to re-emphasize that Herzog’s film does not endorse an attitude toward nature and the environment that asserts “it does not care about us, so we should not care about it.”  No, I do not think that Herzog is eating shark fin soup warmed up over coal-fired ovens.  Yet Grizzly Man does ask us to contemplate the meaning of nature, and by doing that we might become better environmentalists.  I do not recommend Grizzly Man because it eschews what Earth Day supposedly represents but because it forces us to consider why we want Earth Day to represent what it does.

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About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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