The Best Films of the Decade: #7 02/22/2010
The first decade of our young century has come to a close. During that time the world around us has changed rapidly, and cinema has changed with it. Mainstream filmmaking continues to go down a dark path, moving ever closer to an event-style industry with no perception of "art". Meanwhile the cinema is ennobled all over the world by artists who reject or beat the studio system. As strong as ever, if you look in the right places, the art form thrives. For the next 10 days, I'll be counting down the 10 greatest films of the decade...
Directed by Werner Herzog
German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is, quite simply, the greatest documentary I've ever seen. Workable as biography, autobiography and even allegory, it is of extraordinary depth and value. Truly an auteurist work, if Grizzly Man were helmed by a more typical documentary filmmaker it would be entirely different. As it is, under the eccentric direction of Herzog, it goes far deeper than expected, investigating into the essence of a man who lost his life to his passion.
Werner Herzog knows a little something about dangerous passions, having gone to insane measures to complete some of his films. Such as when he fled to an evacuated island to film a volcano expected to explode at any moment for the film La Soufriere or when he famously dragged a boat over a mountain to make Fitzcarraldo. It is clear that Herzog feels some sort of kinship with Timothy Treadwell, the man who lived amongst the grizzlies he cared so deeply for. They both seem to be fervently driven men willing to risk it all. Also, Herzog respects him as a filmmaker; in one of the film's strongest moments Herzog remarks on "the inexplicable magic of cinema", a quality he recognizes in some of Treadwell's footage. Indeed, much of the film is made up of Treadwell's footage (of which there are countless hours of), but it always feels like an Herzog film thanks to his narration which varies from insightful to poetic to profound, revealing much about Treadwell but perhaps just as much about Werner Herzog himself. It is here that the line between biographical and autobiographical filmmaking is blurred. Grizzly Man works as a both a portrait of the subject from the title, as well as of the director.
Despite the aforementioned qualities, the two men aren't too similar. While Herzog is daring and perhaps on occasion even foolish, he certainly isn't delusional. Timothy Treadwell was clearly a disturbed man, plagued by demons. One of the key insights into his past provided in the film is that before he became the "grizzly man", he was an alcoholic. While his intentions to protect bears seemed noble, it is apparent that he was replacing one addiction with another. In some of the most revealing footage of Treadwell he claims he wouldn't know what to do without the bears. It seems the bears, like the bottle before them, were something for Treadwell to hang onto in order to avoid confronting his real issues. In this way his story is a universally applicable tale of misplaced devotion.
The way Treadwell clung to the grizzly bears is actually quite similar to how alcoholics cling to alcohol or even how some cling to God. Yes, Treadwell's devotion was, at least almost, religious. His story works as an examination of a very common occurrence in human nature; a need to be a part of something larger than himself. Once again, while his intentions may seem admirable, they spring from an unhealthy desire to flee himself. Treadwell, in dedicating his energy to other creatures, became ignorant to himself and the real world, to the point of almost living a fantasy. Perhaps it is here where Herzog truly found resonance. As a man who became so blinded by his passion, Treadwell compromised his perspective and his safety whereas Herzog was able to walk a thin line between eccentricity and insanity, eventually shaking off the more foolish tendencies of his younger days.
Werner Herzog is more commonly recognized for his feature films with Klaus Kinski, such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but, to my mind, Grizzly Man stands amongst his best narrative works. Having seen the film numerous times, it always rewards with repeated viewings. Timothy Treadwell is one of the most fascinating subjects in all of cinema, documentary or otherwise. His story is a tragedy. Many people don't sympathize with him, considering him an idiot and a mad man for what he did. However, I find it difficult to understand that reasoning. Treadwell was misguided, but he had a heart filled with a lot of love and not knowing how to express that tortured him until his death, when his demons finally caught up to him.
In one of the absolutely most compelling scenes of the decade, Werner Herzog is interviewing a close friend of Treadwell. She has a videotape in her possession, containing the audio (not the video as the lens cap wasn't removed) of the death of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. The friend has never listened to the tape out of fear for its contents. We observe as Herzog listens to the tape through headphones, us unable to hear what he is listening to. When he is finished, Herzog is quite obviously shaken, a state he can rarely be found in, and he tells the friend never to listen to the tape. This scene is terrifying, haunting and cathartic. Something like the inexplicable magic of cinema.