Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)

It’d be far too easy to simply say that Morris is being purely objective in his documentary on those involved with a pair of pet cemeteries, because frankly it’s a lot more fun to debate whether he’s lampooning these bizarre people, or whether he’s being dead-serious in his depiction, or dare I say, sympathetic/empathetic.  I think the answer to that question depends entirely on the mindset of whoever is watching, and my mindset of the night was that of sympathy, so my answer of the night is the latter – sympathic/empathetic.  I took this film so seriously simply because of how serious these people were about building a pet cemetery, how enraged they were that pet corpses were heartlessly dug up by the masses when the first cemetery went under, and, quite simply, because of how much they clearly love animals (all of which facets of these peoples’ dead-seriousness are in and of themselves ripe to be satirized, which is why it’s easy to read “Gates of Heaven” as sarcastic).  These are some of the strangest people I’ve seen as the focus of a feature-length documentary, but as I said, they were so steadfast in their cause, so serious and so downright innocent in their conviction that their pets need and deserve respect in death and an appropriate final resting place, that I was able to push aside whatever snide, sarcastic thoughts I would’ve thought about these strange people otherwise and instead considered that innocence, and saw pure, almost child-like souls within these people.  Floyd McClure, the handicapped man in charge of the first cemetery the film focuses on, begins the film by simply describing how even in his youth, he wanted to create and run a pet cemetery.  Little insight is given into the other facets of this man’s life or past, just this one desire in regard to, of all things, a pet cemetery, but he talks about that one strange years-long goal with such conviction and devotion, sprinkled with clear respect for animals, that he’s immediately a sympathetic, likable figure.  As we meet some of the pet owners bidding farewell to their dearly departed, or an old lady singing a duet with her little doggie, it’s impossible to deny that they’re anything but normal, and the way they talk about their pets as if they were their own children will never not be strange, but nevertheless, that love for a pet is undeniable, and damned if that little eulogy the couple give with the cemetery administrator as they bury their dog isn’t moving.  The way they commiserate on the strange yet fascinating breed of the dog as if they’re dog experts plying their craft the way film historians would fondly discuss the art of cinema, and remembering the years of joy that dog brought, presented so matter-of-factly by Errol Morris…there’s just something so real about that, something I can’t describe in words, but merely silently appreciate.  Later, I got the vibe that the Harberts family, who run the cemetery the exhumed pets are moved to, aren’t quite as religiously obsessed with animals as the film’s previous subjects, but there’s still something just as bizarre yet real about them.  The way son Philip laments and eats his kishkes out about having to deal with dead animals on a daily basis, yet dutifully does it anyway, and the way his brother Danny laments his professional failures in life while waxing philosophical about no less than true love, is just so quirky, so subtly strange that it’s also subtly parallel to the kinds of things I would worry about and think about on a daily basis.  Though my interest started to wane as the focus shifted towards the fascinating yet ideologically bleak Harberts rather than the wonderfully eccentric yet pure-hearted people associated with McClure’s cemetery (even his nemesis, the owner of a rendering plant, is depicted as a more-or-less nice and matter-of-fact guy), the image of Danny playing his electric guitar outside, on a hill overlooking the impossibly green cemetery, and a long, silent montage of the some of the gravestones, are incredibly poignant, the ‘meanings’ of which I won’t go into, for it’s much more rewarding for the viewer to come up with his or her own meaning (and I haven’t quite come up with a ‘meaning’ yet…).  Everybody knows the adage of ‘man’s best friend’, and that the biggest selling point of a pet is the prospect of pure, unconditional love, the desire for which is clearly a key point of ‘Gates of Heaven’ – not just a film about late pets and their owners, but that instinct to love and be loved that is likely inherent in all species.  What I think made this film so poignant and moving in that regard is that that pure, unconditional love and innocence was present not just in the animals living and dead, but in their peculiar and caricature-ish owners.

And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe, so it’s gotta be some kind of minor masterpiece by default, no?


Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Marina Zenovich, 2008)

It’s a sad commentary on the United States Judicial system when the behavior of one of its judges overseeing the case of a 43 year old man who drugged and raped a 13 year old girl is nearly as despicable as the defendant’s.

To be fair, though, I’m not sure what to believe from this film now that it’s come out that that David Wells guy, one of the talking heads, was out and out lying in this film about many of his meetings with the judge in question, which have now been revealed to be completely fictional. Obviously that casts everything else in the film into doubt, but if the accounts of the prosecutor, Polanski’s attorney, etc. are true, then this documentary did exactly what it was supposed to: fill me with rage, not just at Polanski, one of cinema’s greatest artists, for committing a crime arguably more heinous than murder, but at the U.S. Judicial system and one of its beyond-corrupt, fame-seeking officials (and the attorneys who knew that what the judge was doing was grossly illegal, but went along with it for far too long before finally, FINALLY, saying enough is enough) for actually making me go against all the values I stand for and genuinely feel sympathy for a statutory rapist (he has had a tough, tough life…parents dying in a concentration camp, the Sharon Tate murder…not that that’s an excuse for what he did to that girl, obviously. In fact, his occasional lack of remorse in interviews in the years after the incident is downright sickening, so this documentary certainly isn’t one-sided on the side of Polanski and against the judge. Each side gets their fair shakes.), that he was right to flee from what was essentially a kangaroo court and zero chance at a fair trial/sentencing. Don’t bother asking me my opinion on his recent arrest and whether or not he should be extradited, because I’ve flip-flopped on that debate every day practically (on one hand, I know that if this was Joe Shmo instead of the great Roman Polanski, I’d say fry the bastard, making me a hypocrite, I freely admit, and on the other hand, he already served the parole board-recommended sentence before fleeing, and the victim has stated for decades that she doesn’t want Polanski to serve any further punishment, nor does she want to relive the incident in further proceedings – both entirely valid arguments that I’ve weighed considerably), and this very fascinating documentary has only made my ability to come to a concrete opinion that much more difficult.


Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)


Mick Jagger and Melvin “Jor-El” Belli: partners in vain, self-righteous douchebaggery.

Otherwise, who knew one of the most prolific bands of all time would be this dull and uninteresting off the stage and be this unworthy of a feature-length documentary (a documentary that feels disingenuous from the very first moment, by the way…those scenes of the Maysles reviewing the Altamont footage with Jagger are just ridiculous in how staged they seem. If Jagger couldn’t act in those cobbled-together scenes, can you imagine what a disaster Fitzcarraldo would’ve been if he had starred in it like Herzog originally planned?  )?

But hey, at least Meredith Hunter’s hemorrhaging torso made things interesting at the end, amiright?





Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

In a way, “Titicut Follies” might just be the most perfect film ever made.  If you consider perfection or lack thereof in terms of whether or not a filmmaker succeeds in saying what he/she wants to say, and the film gets the filmmaker’s point or message across, how could this film not be considered perfect?  Frederick Wiseman’s trying to show the deplorable conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, and let’s face it, when your film is wall-to-wall, grainy black and white images of grown men being taunted and ridiculed and treated like cattle in a facility that looks more like Auschwitz than a mental hospital, yeah, I’d say I got the point.  In that regard, yes, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – from start to finish I was completely convinced that a place like Bridgewater only exacerbates, rather than rehabilitates, these men’s illnesses, and my stomach churned and knotted to see men so clearly mentally ill being treated like playthings by the guards.  Even the seemingly harmless and carefree images of the men singing and dancing for the talent show interspersed throughout the film serve as a cruel façade for what really goes on, as the curtain is lifted once those smiling, singing men become emaciated, naked men being shepherded to barren cells and poked and prodded and mocked.  So in terms of getting a point across and coaxing an emotional response out of the viewer, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – almost too perfect, as you’re quite simply barraged by images of the deplorable conditions of Bridgewater, so that when the credits roll, you’re seething with anger – I know I was. 

It’s perfect in that regard, but in terms of film structure, it really isn’t.  I mean, obviously there’re a million things I’d rather watch to pass the time than men skinnier than concentration camp prisoners ranting and raving about Kennedy and Christ, or feeding tubes nonchalantly being shoved up their noses, or an apathetic, cigarette-smoking doctor listening as a man talks about his sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl and childhood homosexual experiences, or guards teasing them simply to irritate and to aggravate their illnesses (and penis.  Lots and lots of crazy old man penis…  ).  And even at a mere hour and 20 minutes, “Titicut Follies” felt like one of the longest films I’ve ever seen, dragging on and on and on in its monotony of upsetting images – but what better way to place you into Bridgewater and turn you into one of those men than by making you feel the passage of time come to an absolute crawl, as must’ve been the case day after day for these mentally ill men?  The argument can be made that the film plays up the deplorable conditions of the place too much, making the film’s thesis too obvious, to the point that after a while the sheer monotony of those brutal images takes away some of their power.  But even then, you keep telling yourself that this shit is real, and boy is that an eye-opener. 

I almost feel obligated to criticize some of the scenes in this film for feeling too stagey, as if it was a little too convenient that the camera just ‘happened’ to show up right when a man began his long, half-gibberish rant or when a man, naked and cowering in his barren cell, cursed his guards and his fate, and Wiseman just ran with it.  That such bizarre moments are captured fully and uncut raises some doubt as to the true reality of all this, that maybe Wiseman’s being disingenuous, that having such an abundance of images that so clearly show how awful Bridgewater is, is almost too good to be true, that at least some of it had to be staged…right?  But c’mon, these men are so clearly mentally ill, how could they possibly be anything but authentic?  And even if the guards, so cruel in stripping these men bare and herding them into cells and dogging them with whatt’d-ya-say’s and taunting and teasing and beatings, are playing themselves up for the camera, what does that tell you about a place like Bridgewater when its guards feel completely comfortable portraying themselves as such pitiless bullies before the camera?  Are they exaggerating their treating the patients/prisoners like meat to appear more manly and authoritative, effectively mugging for the camera out of pride of being stronger and more imposing than men who’re mentally ill?  Do they behave worse when the camera’s not on them, trying to save face, as unbelievable as that sounds?  Neither option instills a whole lot of confidence about a place like Bridgewater, that’s supposed to help these men but instead tucks them away from the rest of society so they don’t have to be dealt with or thought about, at least until someone like Frederick Wiseman comes along.


Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

In its scant 90+ minute running time, “Baraka” manages to do what even the most heartfelt screenplay and reflective, reality-based work of fiction cannot: it shows us the world.  Well, obviously a 90 minute documentary/visual essay film showing random images of people and places in locales both modern and exotic is gonna show you the world, but “Baraka” does more than that.  In combining some of the most breathtaking moving images any movie could ask for (via a special widescreen technique that Ron Fricke designed specifically for this film) with innovative editing and a soundtrack about as incredible as the images, these images of the world combine to live and breathe.  We don’t just see every the world of “Baraka”, we feel it – we feel its history, its evolution (or de-evolution), its soul.  We’re shown similarities and differences between customs of those in the city and those in the wild, between mother nature in a junkyard and mother nature in the most awe-inspiring mountain/jungle regions in the world, between architecture of the ancient and architecture the modern, between behavior of humans and behavior of animals.  There’s a method to Ron Fricke’s madness, because when you pay attention to how these images are cobbled together, how one image is followed by another that’s at least somewhat similar in tone, shape, basic theme, or what have you, you’ll see that they’re not so random after all.

Consider these three images:

In the first, this monkey is regarded for at least a minute or two.  In any movie, let alone a plotless, dialogue-free essay film, a minute or two is an eternity, but the camera focuses on this monkey not a moment too long, and it’s all because of that face.  I’m not gonna claim to know what a monkey is a thinking, but what I do know is that it’s giving perhaps as much of a melancholy, contemplative, and knowing face as any human would.  You combine that with the haunting, meditative musical score of that particular scene early in the film, and all of a sudden this monkey in the water is carrying the weight of the Primate order and the entire natural world around it, and hell, it could be contemplating the starry, eclipse-containing cosmos as seen in the next few shots for all we know.  And then later, we come to this disturbing, ghost-white man as he slowly looks up and lets out an agonizing scream towards the heavens – except we don’t hear that scream.  In one of the most brilliant moments of an already brilliant soundtrack, that scream is replaced with the sounds of all the grotesqueries of modern society – car horns, alarms, engines, every aspect of today’s sound pollution.  Now granted, those two images come rather far apart in the film, but the connection is still there.  If that monkey is expressing deep rumination over how the world has changed, then the man turns that rumination into rage, into a head-on collision between nature of old and the technology of now.  

And the third image?  Well, I just thought it was really, really cool, and scared the hell out of me when this guy just popped up all of a sudden 😛 .

If there’s any ‘message’ to take out of “Baraka,” it revolves around that ever-changing world, that impact between old and new, antiquated and modern, spiritual and technological.  I mean, if this image doesn’t tell you that, I don’t know what does:

So much of “Baraka”‘s power comes not just in how breathtaking the images are, but in how they’re arranged and edited together, and how they’re related.  Consider this fascinating religious ritual:

The arrangement and choreography of this ceremony is remarkable – how fifty men know when to lie on their backs while fifty more simultaneously face them, arms waving, all moving in unison, and then the two groups switching on a dime, in perfect synchronicity.  The chanting is fast, lively, exciting, and in perfect harmony – a truly spiritual experience.  And then juxtapose that with a later fast-motion shot of a busy and crowded Grand Central Station.  Two busy images filled to the brim with motion in two completely different contexts.  I won’t just come out and say that the film blatantly sides itself with the more natural world, I’d like to think it’s more complex than that, but boy, that Grand Central Station scene seem a hell of a lot more artificial and robotic than the fluid and uniform, but infinitely more passionate, men in that religious ritual.

Comparisons of similarities/differences in other images are much more apparent, and the contrast between the old and new, ancient and modern, elegant and soulless are much easier to spot in other images, like so:

It’s not exactly subtle on Fricke’s part to show how the ancient pyramid of Giza that hasn’t been used for centuries is far more elegant and FAR less dilapidated and pathetic-looking than this horrendous housing complex that’s still used in the present, but it’s effective enough.  But it’s not all about image.  Lev Kuleshov taught us in the wee early years of cinema that the juxtaposition of one shot with another was vital to influencing the audience’s interpretation of those shots, but I think that “Baraka” proves that sound is now just as vital in influencing image interpretation.  The music during the fast-motion images of the city is lively but somehow artificial, contributing to those scenes’ hectic but robotic feel.  A later scene in an abandoned facility, maybe a hospital or prison, I wasn’t sure, features dank, grimy rooms and piles of skulls, juxtaposed with still images of forlorn faces – but it’s the sounds of sadness and agony within that scene that makes it truly frightening.  A montage at a junkyard and in various slums, and how the people there lead their desolate existence, is supplemented with some of the most woeful music you’ve ever heard, so as a result, the scene is woeful.  If the music in that montage were more lively, we’d see perseverance in these people instead of sorrow.  And later, when we see perhaps hundreds of men and women washing themselves on the shore, laughing and enjoying each others’ company, the music has an air of hope that makes the scene joyful.  If the music had been more introspective and solemn, as with the earlier scene of the monkey taking a similar bath, this scene of absolute joy would take on a much different tone.  The editing and use of sound in “Baraka” is as impeccable as the astonishingly beautiful images of mountains, trees, ruins both ancient and modern, animals, and man, and the combination of all of these go a long way in showing how every element, every organism both living and dead, of this planet has an unspoken connection, and just how similar, and how different, a monkey taking a bath and a person taking a bath can be.

90 minutes is rather short by ‘normal’ movie standards, but for a movie like “Baraka,” 90 minutes might be stretching it a bit long.  But even still, if you somehow zone out of “Baraka” for a minute or two, you’re still getting a hell of a lot out of it when you zone back in, simply because every single image is nothing short of breathtaking.  The downside of that, of course, is that you might miss just how all of these sights and sounds connect, how one face or one structure graphically match-cuts into another, just how connected one person or culture can be with another, despite being separated by thousands of miles or thousands of years.  Another essay film, Chris Marker’s “Sans soleil,” treaded similar ground, but didn’t gel with me primarily because of narration that I thought was dull at best, pretentious at worst.  “Baraka” gelled with me in every way that “Sans soleil” didn’t because there was no narration to tell me how immensely complex and awe-inspiring the world is.  I didn’t need to be told this – I could see it for myself.  It makes perfect sense that ‘a blessing, or the breath, or the essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds’ is just one of many, possibly infinite, definitions throughout so many languages of the word “Baraka,” because really as a word it’s as indescribable as the nature of the world that the movie it’s named after is portraying.  It’s an indescribable quality, encompassing every emotion, every mindset both sublime and forlorn – a quality we can just barely begin to comprehend when we look at so-called random images.  The slow descent of a tree, the sound of snapping bark like a final death wail, is like the downfall of a stately king.  A monk’s slow-motion ringing of a massive bell takes on the appearance of a Herculean effort to signal either the sad end of one era or the beginning of another.  In the span of a few minutes, we’re treated to sweeping images of things ranging from the ruins of a lost civilization to a flock of thousands of birds above an immense forest, sunrise over the Australian outback, a fog-covered canyon and mountain range, and an extreme close-up of a lizard’s head, and it’s all bookended first by an eclipse, and finally a starry night.  Just another ordinary day.


My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

It starts with the director, Guy Maddin, guiding his leading actress Ann Savage through her lines (“did he pin you down or did you just lie back and let nature take its course?”  “Was it the boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?”).  Rather than ease us into it, Maddin begins his film by breaking the fourth wall…or so we think.  For now at least, it’s akin to that screen test scene from Fellini’s “8 1/2”, which revealed that that movie’s filmmaker protagonist was testing actresses for…the very film we were watching at that very moment.  It broke the barrier between film and reality, and now so too does Guy Maddin…or so we think.  Later, we see this opening scene in the so-called “proper” context, as one of a number of scenes from the filmmaker’s childhood that he’s recreating with his mother and actors as part of a “social experiment.”  But even then, there’s no rhyme or reason, no narrative structure to safely nestle us in the guarantee that we’re just watching a quirky little movie.  It’s still one of many scenes in “My Winnipeg” that blurs fantasy and reality, memory and history.  “My Winnipeg” has no story structure beyond the razor-thin “plot” of the narrator trying to escape from this city he’s lived in his entire life (a premise that becomes irrelevant after about a minute and a half).  It’s not grounded in a fictional screenplay, nor is it grounded in reality.  We see fantasies presented as fact, fact presented as fantasy.  It’s the narrator’s (Maddin’s) expression of unreliable facts, his hatred, his conceded acceptance, his fantasies and what-ifs, his desires, his romantically poetic interpretations of bizarre goings-on, and his love not of Winnipeg, but His Winnipeg.

It’s not a documentary, even with the narrator’s “this happened, and then this happened” voiceover, and it’s not pure fantasy, even with the frozen horses and the expressionistic depiction of Winnipeg’s occult past.  Like I said, it’s not pure reality, and it’s not pure fantasy.  It’s just the way Maddin sees things.  Was Winnipeg’s City Hall really built as a lightning rod of the occult in the early 20th century a la the apartment building in “Ghostbusters?”  Did that horse track really burn down, trapping the horses in an eternal panic in that frozen river like the victims of Vesuvius?  Is “Ledge Man” really Winnipeg’s pride and joy soap opera, starring the narrator’s mother in the same premise for 50+ years?  Does Winnipeg really have a higher sleepwalking rate than any other city in the world?  Are streets really named after the city’s beloved whores of old?  Did the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion really only destroy the extra space added when the evil NHL came to town?

Sure, why not?  In his own bizarre way, even taken to the utmost fantastic excess, Maddin presents all these quirky events as fact, so why shouldn’t I take it as fact?  And he sells it because it’s bizarre, but he buys into it, explains to us all the zaniness of this city’s alleged history and his interpretations of it as matter-of-factly as possible.  We see typical home movie footage of the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion, which is undisputed fact, but when you add to that the haunting black-and-white images of the ruined arena, in the midst of its death throes as the wrecking ball of the present bangs, bangs, bangs, intrudes on this place of the past, and the narrator matter-of-factly observes (not implies, observes) that the implosion is really an exorcising of the beautiful arena’s NHL demons, inference becomes cold-hard fact.  It’s Maddin’s world, complete with disjointed memories, unreliable accounts of events far in the past, and his own personal fantasies and demons, so anything we’re presented with, goes.

Or don’t believe it, your call.  But even if you cry bullshit on this guy’s account of what would be far and away the most interesting city on the face of the earth if it were true, just sit back and admire the way Guy Maddin tells a story (well, not a story really, but an entire mentality – a visual poem).  When the narrator’s not giving a play-by-play of one of Winnipeg’s bizarre goings-on, his running, disjointed commentary becomes a T.S. Eliot poem (“the forks, the lap”; “white.  block.  house.”).  The droves of sleepwalkers become droves of fedora-sporting silhouettes, shuffling through the “Unknown City”  (that’s Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” not Maddin..but really, what’s the difference? 😛 ).  Fantasy combines with reality, unreliable memories combines with history, and in terms of Maddin’s technique as filmmaker, techniques of old combine seamlessly with experimental techniques of the new (the narrator even makes no bones about this possibly being the next great film genre – again breaking the fourth wall).  The black and white cinematography is perfect.  For once, a contemporary black and white film actually felt like it’s come from the silent era and the age when black and white was the norm, rather than a fake 21st century novelty.  A recreation of mayor and friends in the early 20th century and their…rituals in city hall, with no sound but elegant music and sights of the bizarre, is taken right out of the silent era, from Buñuel or Murnau.  The images throughout “My Winnipeg” are at once ordinary, fantastic, and awe-inspiring.

Or move past the silent era, in scenes of the narrator’s recreations of childhood milestones, and you get a wickedly satirical look at 40s and 50s noir / melodrama (complete with noir legend Ann Savage playing the mother).  A scene like the mother’s confrontation with her daughter after a car accident (the same scene from the beginning, now revisited) is everything you’d expect from an old-timey movie, complete with the mother’s hammy dialogue/accusations and (purposefully, just to show him who’s boss) lousy acting, despite her supposed decades of experience as the heroine of “Ledge Man.”  Everything you’d expect, and nothing.  Why is the family chihuahua suddenly played by a pug?  What’s with the woman who’s house the narrator’s borrowing for shooting, just sitting there with the makeshift family while he films, “putting a damper on things?”  Because it’s old-meets-new, and it’s all wickedly funny, and bizarre.  The traditional bluescreen technique of showing artificial images outside the windows of the train car as the narrator tries to escape becomes anything but traditional.  Title cards you’d see in a silent film become subliminal, punctuating this treatise on Winnipeg with eccentric commentary (“Dance of the Hairless Boners,” anyone?).  Amidst this contemporary silent film are moments of hairy crotches, naked whores, “the smells of female vanity and desperation”: images that wouldn’t be caught dead in the Hayes era.  Maddin’s weaving together of cinema of old and cinema of new is so seamless, so creative, so interesting, that at the same time the facts and fictions of Winnipeg are brought into a unified whole, so too are the long-dormant film techniques of the early 20th century and new-age experimentation that’s now running wild.

Wikipedia tells me that Winnipeg is the capital and largest city of Manitoba, located in the prairies of Western Canada, and is home to “historic architecture; distinctive neighbourhoods, (like Little Italy and the Exchange District); scenic waterways; a Canadian heritage river; and numerous parks, including Assiniboine Park and Kildonan Park.”  Those are the facts, but they tell me nothing.  There’s a difference between a location and a place.  Wikipedia describes a location, Guy Maddin shows us a place.  Even in the nondescript town I live in, every side street, the barber shop, the police HQ, the Dunkin Donuts, the landmark coffee shop, the railroad station, they all have stories to tell: stories that’ll change drastically as they’re passed from generation to generation, teller to teller, but will always maintain some kind of spirit.  Home videos or news reports show you an old hockey arena being demolished, but through this most subjective film, we see the independent spirit and heart of the entire city being ripped apart one wrecking ball hit, one death pang, at a time.  Back alleys, frozen horse heads, white block house, Ledge Man, the most unique public baths in the world, and that divine Winnipeg Arena with its cramped seats, putrid man-stink and public urinal trough become the stuff of myths, legend, and memory…and life.  The narrator is initially trying to escape from Winnipeg, the only city and home he’s ever known, but this isn’t Winnipeg, it’s His Winnipeg – not a city, but a state of mind, and how could anybody possibly escape from that?


Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

Do I consider Timothy Treadwell’s gruesome death a tragedy?  Of course.  Do I sympathize with him or find myself on his side?  Hell no.  As much as I love and respect nature, and as heartless as it may sound, the man had it coming.  Sure a love for nature is all well and good, but there’s a fine line between that and abandoning any sense of reality and kinship with one’s species, which is where Treadwell found himself.  There came a point where he transitioned from respecting nature to becoming a man-child with a god complex, thinking he himself could take on his own species and “become” nature itself, losing himself in animals whose danger he couldn’t, or more likely wouldn’t, recognize.  He was reckless in putting too much trust in animals that he thought he could single-handedly protect (obviously a dream reeking of naivety), and also something of a hypocrite in trying to affect nature itself and the bears’ natural way of life, when really those natives may’ve really been onto something with the idea of simply respecting nature and its wide range of species by keeping one’s distance and letting nature take its course.  Timothy Treadwell, throughout this film and throughout his life, had one big identity crisis, and even though he found his passion in the form of bears, his inability to understand both his own species and his adopted species led to his downfall, which to me was absolutely inevitable.

Clearly I’ve formed an opinion on Timothy Treadwell.  Werner Herzog has not.  This is why Grizzly Man is so effective as a documentary.  One of the few things Herzog actually passes judgment on, in fact, is the simple concept of how tragic such a horrific death is (notably with Herzog’s wise and respectful decision to conceal from the viewer the audio recording of Timothy and Amie’s deaths).  The lifestyle that led to those deaths, and just what went through Treadwell’s mind (deteriorating mind, I’d say), are simply shown as they are, for the viewer to pass judgment.  Obviously I’d hope anybody watching this movie would recognize Treadwell as a sick man with a sick and ridiculous goal, and perhaps even Herzog portrays his life and death with a feeling of disappointment and even pity, but he doesn’t force the issue or a specific point of view of the subject either.  Ultimate judgment on Timothy Treadwell is in the footage (with a hint of Herzog’s bleak view on both the beauty and destructiveness of nature), and most of that judgment of a most unnatural life will come from the viewer, with that footage pretty much acting as a catalyst.