Grizzly Gods

People in Bear Costumes

Another quote, often attributed to Chesterton, incorrectly, captures the same idea: “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.” In other words, without a purchase on the transcendent dimension, human beings often search for meaning in such things as ideology, politics, sex, aesthetics, work, astrology, or consumption to fill the void within. They seek a kind of extreme, ersatz religion to armor themselves against what they perceive, in the phrase of French existentialist Albert Camus, as “the benign indifference of the universe.”

A kind of love is possible; but, oftentimes, it is distorted and warped in that it invests itself in an object rather than a subject, human or divine. Only truly great souls, be they agnostic or atheist, can, with unflinching, heroic honesty, maintain a balanced perspective on reality.

What has this got to do with big grizzly bears in Alaska? Not much, actually. But it has a lot to do with human beings, specifically, one Timothy Treadwell who spent 13 summers observing and videotaping a hundred hours of his very close — too close — contact with these awesome animals up to and including the point of his and his girlfriend’s death under the tooth and claws of one of these towering predators on a rainy afternoon in their tent.

The heart and soul of Grizzly Man is Treadwell’s own video footage which combines outstanding wildlife shots with self-absorbed soliloquies on his extreme, dysfunctional love and affection for these impressive animals. You might call it an obsession. It is most certainly anthropomorphism. “He was treating them like people in bear costumes,” said a pilot who spotted Treadwell’s remains.

Treadwell saw the bears as his salvation, for instance, from alcohol abuse. He viewed his time with the bears as a kind of vocation which gave his life meaning. His feelings for the bears appear to have rivalled anything one human being could feel for another. He gave the bears individual names such as Mr. Chocolate.

Yet, he seemed to tempt death by his close proximity to these gargantuan creatures, often facing them down with tough language as if disciplining a hunting dog. “If I show weakness, I’m dead. They will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me up into bits and pieces — I’m dead. So far, I persevere. I persevere,” he stated.

If this isn’t eerie enough, Herzog also includes a segment from Treadwell’s appearance on the David Letterman show. Letterman asks him, “Is it going to happen that we read a news item one day that you have been eaten by one of these bears?” Hah, hah. Moments like these illustrate why Grizzly Man was justly awarded the Sundance Film Festival Alfred P. Sloan Award.

Chilling, Dramatic and Ironic

On top of this Herzog overlays interviews with family, friends, an ex-girlfiend/employee, scientists, bush pilots, and even the coroner who examined the deceased’s remains, which were brought to him in plastic bags. Indeed, the coroner’s description of an audio track from Treadwell’s video camera, of the actual bear attack, is one of the most chilling and dramatic episodes in the film, not least because of the clinical way in which it is delivered. As it happens the camera was running with the cap still on the lens, mercifully depriving us of a visual record of the tragedy without diminishing its impact.

Timothy Treadwell grew up on Long Island in a pretty ordinary, middle-class family. He was a competitive diver who lost his college scholarship to Bradley University after a back injury. He eventually dropped out after taking to alcohol and the like. He headed to California to seek his fortune in show business without success. At some point he made the protection of grizzly bears on federally protected lands in Alaska his life’s calling. He eventually founded an organization, Grizzly People (www.grizzlypeople) which seeks to preserve bears and their wilderness. He is still featured on their website. He spent a lot of time talking to children in classrooms in the off-season, so to speak.

During one manic scene, Treadwell vents his rage at a nonexistent, or at least an unresponsive, God for failing to deliver rain during a drought which is hindering the migration of salmon, an essential food source for the bears. He excoriates Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in the process. When sufficient rainfall does materialize, he calls it “miraculous”; but he really views it as an entitlement. His disdain for the Divinity, or the idea of one, is palpable.

The great irony of Treadwell’s “vocation” to the grizzly bears is that he really contributed nothing to their survival. The biologists interviewed by Herzog make it clear that the Alaskan population is healthy and stable. Moreover, by habituating the bears to human contact, Treadwell was really putting them at greater risk. If they became comfortable with humans, fatal interactions for both are more likely to occur. His willful disregard of park regulations, requiring a one-hundred-yard distance between bear and human, was not only reckless but self-defeating in terms of their survival. Treadwell is the sort of individual who makes a true conservationist cringe.

Given Treadwell’s amateurism as an ecologist or naturalist, his relations with the National Parks Service deteriorated. In another over-the-top performance on camera, he unburdens himself in a foul-mouthed tirade against the offending officials with a stream of expletives repeated, over and over, with great fervor. He continually makes obscene gestures to the camera for emphasis.

Birds of a Philosophical Feather

The director, Werner Herzog, does not hesitate to challenge Treadwell in his voice-over commentary. “I have seen this madness on a movie set before,” says Herzog. “I have seen human ecstasies and darkest human turmoil.” Herzog respects Treadwell as an artist, but he rejects his view of reality: “I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” Indeed, he views the blank stare of these bears as “only the half-bored interest in food.” Werner Herzog, meet Albert Camus.

Herzog, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, may be a great soul, but he is a lonely one. He articulates a philosophy, beyond a scientific view of wildlife biology, which is essentially cosmic social Darwinism. Herzog embodies a kind of nihilism which drove an unbelieving Treadwell to embrace the grizzly as the source of meaning in a seemingly cold and pitiless universe. God is dead. Long live the grizzly!

In truth, the only difference between Herzog and Treadwell is the latter’s failure of nerve in the face of the Void. One is a post-modern, world-weary European, robbed of hope by the horrors of the Somme, the Holocaust, and the Gulag; yet he is still able to carry on in the face of the bleakness of existence. The other is an American Adam who cannot bear to be cast out of the Garden of Eden, a John Muir without even the residual Calvinism.

Both Herzog and Treadwell “can’t see things as they are.” They cannot see that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins said in his poem, “God’s Grandeur.” Nature is not God, but neither is it the Void. Neither pantheism nor materialism will do. One must see the reality behind the matter. “And for all this, nature is never spent;/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Grizzly Man provides impressive footage of megafauna in the wild; but it is most impressive in revealing the torment of the human heart without faith, hope, and love — human or divine. That torment afflicts both the director and the subject of this compelling film.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

G. Tracy Mehan III served as assistant administrator for water at the US Environmental Protection Agency, 2001-2003. He is a principal with the Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, VA

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