F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 9, 2015)

9 07 2015

No matter how his projects turn out in the end, no one can accuse Werner Herzog of being lazy or complacent.  As he floats freely between fiction and documentary, Herzog always manages to find some unique angle to examine humanity and its place in both culture and nature.

“Grizzly Man,” though, marks peak Herzog.  This documentary is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it exemplifies all his best qualities as a filmmaker: a distinct vision, an unlikely subject, and a clearly articulated worldview that shines through a narrative that fascinates the senses and enraptures the brain.

Herzog works mostly with the found footage of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled nature expert and wannabe television personality.  For over a decade, he spent his summers observing and interacting with grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness.  And rather than writing something pedestrian like a journal or research text, Treadwell recorded his adventures like a Discovery Channel show.  Through Treadwell’s lens, he fashioned himself like an even greater version of Steve Irwin, toeing the line between bear and man, the animal and the human.

This treasure trove of footage discovered after Treadwell met a grizzly end (sorry, terrible pun) being mauled by one of the creatures he loved forms the backbone of Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.”  Though he pads the recordings with traditional documentary-style interviews of friends, family, and colleagues, neither they nor Treadwell get the final word.  Herzog himself actively narrates the film, offering his own commentary on what transpired from his removed yet engaged perspective.

Herzog’s presence over “Grizzly Man” makes the experience less like watching a film and more like a thrilling presentation of critical analysis about a filmmaker yet to exhibit a film.  That may sound dry and boring, yet it proves anything but. He dares to look beyond the surface of Treadwell’s recordings, which many would immediately dismiss as hubristic or insane.  When processed by Herzog, Treadwell serves as a cautionary tale about someone who processes life as characters and images rather than actual living things.

In addition, the filmmaker in Herzog sees something that most people locked in a perspective of pure humanism would be unable to discern.  Since Treadwell operates as a renegade cameraman without a unionized crew, he could shoot the world without being encumbered by regulations or safety concerns.  (Given his fate, however, he could have used some.)  Herzog lets some of this pure beauty shine through.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” is one heck of an intelligent film, then, as it allows for a portrait of Treadwell as both profound and profoundly stupid to emerge.

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