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On Treadwell's turf

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The line between ambition and madness is a fine one, often separated only by the fickle veneer of success. It's a twilight zone at the core of many of director Werner Herzog's films over the years, including "Grizzly Man," his documentary that opens Friday about Southern California-based photographer Timothy Treadwell, the grizzly bear chronicler who was killed in 2003, along with his friend Amie Huguenard in a bear attack.

Like some of the best-known characters in Herzog's feature films — the maniacal conquistador in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" or the would-be rubber baron in "Fitzcarraldo" — Treadwell was driven by a grand obsession: to document the uncorrupted world of grizzlies at Alaska's Katmai National Park and Reserve, and, in the process, protect them from human intrusion and make himself a nature film star.


FOR THE RECORD:
Movie opening —An article in the Aug. 2 Outdoors section said the documentary "Grizzly Man" would open Aug. 5. The movie opened Aug. 12.


Treadwell is definitely part of the gang, acknowledges Herzog, whose documentaries have tracked tribes in the Sahara, the apocalyptic oil fires of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the devotional stamina of Buddhist pilgrims. "There's a family of men out there, and Timothy fits seamlessly into it," he says.

These characters tend to be misfits with outsize temperaments on Odyssean ventures doomed by the grandiosity that hides their weakness. A man with a troubled past and no naturalist training, Treadwell reinvented himself as a wildlife photographer. He spent 13 summers documenting and hanging out perilously close — recklessly so, said detractors — to wild grizzlies in Alaska. The flamboyant Treadwell found purpose, redemption and notoriety from the bears, but his hubris unleashed primordial forces that cut short his maverick film career.

With an innovative mix of Treadwell's Alaska footage (some of it riveting, such as a bruising clash of two grizzly titans), interviews with friends, family and investigators and his own narration, Herzog has crafted a nature film that's really about human nature, the grizzlies shining a mirror on the thrall of consuming aspiration and romanticized wilds. On a break from shooting a feature film in Thailand, Herzog talked about "Grizzly Man," his own experience in the wilderness and, as is his wont, roved a wide verbal terrain.

Question: Before Treadwell's death, he was perceived by some as a naïve crackpot who ignored basic safety precautions. There's the scene in the film in which he wades in his underwear into a river where a grizzly is swimming. He reaches out and pats the bear as it gets out of the water, and the bear snaps back. What do you think made him want to get so close to grizzlies?

Answer: We can only guess. But I think being near the bears and believing in his role — which was largely fictitious, that he was needed to protect the bears — probably redeemed him from his demons. He was haunted by demons. He had been heavily into alcohol, had a near fatal overdose of heroin. Probably he needed the bears and the presence of the bears more than the bears needed him. Because if I protect bears, I would not protect them from 6 feet. I would go out to the bay, where the planes and boats are landing, and chase them off. In his 100 hours of footage and in my film, over and over he tells the bears how much he loves them. He repeats and repeats and repeats it. I think you should not love the bear, you should respect the bear and stay away.

Q: In the film, the curator of the museum in Kodiak says just that.

A: He's an Aleut. He's in both cultures, a native who grew up in a small village on Kodiak Island, but he holds a PhD from Harvard. He says that, since time immemorial, we respect the bear and we keep our distance, and it would be a disservice to the bear to step close. It's a lack of respect, a lack of understanding the boundaries of your humanness and the bearness of the bear.

Q: There's a lot of tension in the film because of Treadwell's proximity to the grizzlies, and he often talks about death. It's almost as if he has a death wish. At one point he says that his agenda would be advanced if he were not to come out of the wild.

A: He was right about that, because he wouldn't have drawn that attention if he hadn't been killed by a bear. Yes, sometimes I do have a feeling that there was something like a death wish. At the same time, [he has] a vigorous joy of life and [is on a] quest for himself and a quest for putting his life in order, in driving the demons out. The man was magnificent and full of life.

Q: Several people in the film, and you yourself, say that he crossed some kind of invisible border. How would you describe that line?

A: I think when you are out in the wilderness, you would immediately know. I think this borderline is somehow innate in our nature and very much blurred because human beings who grow up in metropolitan areas do not experience wilderness anymore, and it gets lost. You have to know a bear cub looks very fluffy and very cute, but where there is a cub, there must be a mother, and there is a ferocious instinct in this mother to protect the little one. In my opinion his view of nature was sentimentalized. It was a Walt Disney version, the Disneyization of wild nature, which I really resent. But the argument that I have is like an argument I have with a brother, someone that I love. But I argue. I think that somehow contributes to the life of the film.

Q: Had you done that before, interjected yourself into a film?

A: Not to such a degree. In this case, I did not want to appear in person in the movie with the exception of one key moment where I'm listening to the tape [an audiotape of Treadwell and Huguenard's final moments as they're being attacked by a bear]. I was allowed to listen to the tape, and it was instantly clear: We're not going to make a snuff movie. It's not going to be in the film. And, actually, I'm not important in this moment. You see me from the back with earphones on. But you see the face of the woman who owns the tape who was very close to Treadwell. She's trying to read my face. [She has never heard the tape.] Like almost a mirror image of my face and the anguish on her face. It [the scene] has great intensity and great anguish.

Q: Do you think that his time with the bears gave him a false sense that the borderline was different for him?

A: I do not want to harp on his mistakes, but you are mentioning something startling. Sometimes in the footage that I saw, I felt as if he was the one privileged to step close, as if he was adopting the nature of the bear, huffing like a bear, going on all fours, trying to adopt the nature of the wild beast, like crossing over. One of the ecologists, a friend of Timothy's, speaks about an almost religious experience, to leave your humanness, like in a religious ecstasy, and step into another form, another existence — in Treadwell's case, into the existence of the bear.

Q: You talk about the "overwhelming indifference of nature" in the film as opposed to Treadwell's idea of a benign harmony. Can you elaborate?

A: It would be a long elaboration. Give me 48 hours. Of course, I'm not a romantic poet who's enthralled by Mother Nature. If I hear [the words] Mother Nature, it makes me suspicious. I do believe that there is no harmony in the universe. If you look out into the night sky, and this incredible amount of hostility and chaos and violent birth of stars — it's all nuclear out there. When I look at the sun, I have the feeling that this is the most nuclear place — inhospitable, dangerous and unwelcoming. I do believe that Mother Nature is utterly indifferent to human beings.

Q: Did Treadwell's embrace of nature in the Disneyfied way you speak of go more in that direction over the years?

A: I don't see it. I believe that he evolved, not his perspective. He became increasingly irascible. He unraveled even into some fits of paranoia. He kept his sanity at the same time. There are moments where he's paranoid, moments where he's grandiose, moments where he's kind of defeated, where he's star-like. He is quintessentially human, with all the defects of a human being, like all of us.

Q: There's this term, biophilia, that describes some innate affinity for humans to gravitate to nature. Do you buy that here?

A: No. It's a very good term, and I would apply it rather to the tree huggers, which is one of the biggest embarrassments in our civilization. It's so deeply embarrassing that if I see a tree hugger, I just pray for the ground to open and a chasm to swallow me. That is how our relationship with nature has gone completely awry. There's something definitely wrong about that.

Q: Where do you come down on preservation of wilderness then?

A: I do not preserve wilderness because I do catch a trout when I'm out there, and I eat the trout. I forage. But foraging means you leave things intact. You don't off-balance what's out there.

Q: Treadwell thought he was protecting the bears, but they were within a sanctuary.

A: I think what's more important is to protect the habitat. Protecting habitat is a simple concept that very often works against the needs of human beings. The real problem is the spread of human beings, and the [number] of human beings that we have got out there.

Q: How would you compare the landscape of Alaska and its effect on you to other wildernesses you've shot, like the Amazon or Sahara?

A: I love Alaska for its solitude, for its space and because it's one of the very few areas where you have something primordial out there. It is as our planet was created, since human beings roamed this planet. I spent two full summers in Alaska with my son at the end of his childhood. We were dropped way beyond the Alaska Range on a lake, very far out, and the pilot would pick us up six weeks later. We didn't even have a tent, but we had some tools, like an ax. We built a shelter. We had some basic food, like rice and salt. You had to look for berries and mushrooms and eventually catch a trout. I'm not a hunter but I forage. I wouldn't graze a place empty of mushrooms. I would forage like an animal would do it, move on, be selective.

Q: One of the things that struck me in your film is that Treadwell seemed somewhat oblivious to the landscape, and really his whole focus was interacting with the animals.

A: And yet he captured landscapes of great magnificence, unbeknownst to him probably. I think he had an eye for landscapes. He left us footage that for millions and millions of dollars you could not get for me. He was not an amateur. He was very, very professional, thought professionally, filmed professionally, repeated [did retakes] like a professional, 15 times sometimes.

Q: There's a human fascination with killer beasts — lions, snakes, sharks. What do you think the attraction is?

A: I think it's sensationalism of the media. In 100 years of records in Alaska, I think less than 12 people were killed by grizzly bears. Recently I think two people were killed, so it may be 14 by now. The grizzly bear eats grass; it grazes like cattle, eats berries and waits for the salmon run. And half the year it sleeps. The grizzly bear should not be demonized. In comparison to the grizzly bear, 80 people die per year from bee stings. But no one tells us about yet another killing of a human by a wasp.

*


Joe Robinson can be reached at joe.robinson@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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