In the years directly before and after the turn of the millennium, a man named Timothy Treadwell embarked on annual expeditions that most people would term as insane death wishes.  He made summertime treks up to the uninhabited Alaskan wilderness, and filmed himself living amongst the grizzly bears native to the area.  These were not boundary-conscious, National Geographic-style filmed expeditions with cameras and a crew standing a comfortable distance away from the potentially lethal animals.  These were one-man practices in self-isolation.  These were close encounters—finger to paw—with the grizzlies.  These were expeditions that would end with Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard, being ferociously mauled to death.  Treadwell’s story is an incredibly interesting tale of the desire to transcend “an invisible borderline” between staid human convention and the wildness of nature.  It is a story of human delusions of invincibility and the need to anthropomorphize for comfort’s sake.  It is also a story that has hours of footage, self-made by Treadwell, sprawling over his five expeditions into grizzly country that hypnotically uncovers the inner ambitions and demons of an unusual individual.  Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man immortalizes this story with deft perceptiveness.

Herzog edited and compiled the Treadwell footage, along with interviews with Treadwell’s few friends and family, to create a portrait that is in turn haunting, hilarious, and overwhelmingly fascinating.  Timothy Treadwell is revealed to us as a deeply passionate, deeply troubled man who finds the “world of people” to be a devastatingly ill fit.  One distinctly gets the sense that, while Treadwell loves the bears he haphazardly approaches with his camera and outstretched hand, his fascination with the creatures serves more as a savior for himself than a savior for the hunted animals (who, as it is revealed by an expert interviewed in the film, are actually not as hunted as Treadwell fiercely believes).  Addressing the grizzlies in one of his video confessionals, Treadwell stammers through welling tears, “Thank you for giving me a life.  I had no life.”  Treadwell’s tapes possess a free-wheeling beauty because of how fluidly they move between being serious attempts at footage for a Steve Irwin-style television show and a filmed diary of incredible candor.  As he films his farewell for one of his expeditions, the man cannot keep from erupting into expletive-ridden diatribes against the federal park services.  He moves around in his self-composed frame belligerently, jutting his middle-finger up and almost challenging the camera to take a punch at him.  Seconds later, he has righted himself in the shot and is recounting his summer with the bears to his imagined audience.

What Treadwell’s tapes lack in introspection they make up for in horribly revealing self-delusion.  Though he is in the land of the grizzlies, Treadwell cannot keep his mind from wandering back to women.  Women are his painful obsession and albatross, that species that, unlike the bears, he is not always convinced love him back.  Yet his sentiments on the subject are laced with a false self-gratification.  With only the wilderness and his camera to hear him, he insists that he is a nice man, that women know he is skillful in bed, and that he is staunchly not gay.  He also uses this type of defensive rant when speaking of the bears, constantly referring back to the “danger” the animals face as if they depend on his presence there.  In a hidden part of his mind, perhaps Timothy Treadwell knows it is he who depends on his presence there, not the bears.

Is Timothy Treadwell the only outsider in Grizzly Man?  Is this man who actively sought out a harmonious existence with carnivorous bears the only “weirdo” to be found in the documentary?  Treadwell is certainly the volatile and eccentric focus of the film, though Herzog seems to have intentionally filled Grizzly Man with a host of oddballs to remind us that weirdness is a symptom of humankind.  The coroner who worked through the savage remains of Treadwell and Huguenard peers with owl-like eyes into Herzog’s camera, his facial expressions simultaneously revealing terror and pure relish as he describes the grizzly’s attack.  Warren Queeney, who is labeled as an “actor, close friend,” speaks about Treadwell with a bizarre composure, almost as if, true to his acting occupation, he had rehearsed his lines prior to filming or is being shown cue cards from off-screen.  Herzog only feeds the strangeness of these characters by centering their absorbing faces in the middle of his shots, holding his camera on their features for uncomfortable yet engrossing moments after they have finished speaking.  It is often mentioned when a director lets a camera linger in a scene for longer than expected.  With Herzog, there is no lingering, for lingering is idle and without purpose.  Herzog has a directness with his shot duration, a pointed refusal to look away until the entire moment has been locked into memory and every nuance has been recorded.  When the coroner has finished his explanation of the bear’s attack, the camera pulls away from him—not retreating, but expanding its view of this man who examines remains of the dead.

Grizzly Man falls into a tradition for Herzog of fixating on individuals who have outlandishly removed themselves from society.  Klaus Kinski makes wildly misguided voyages down the Amazon not once but twice under the hand of Herzog—in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo—and it is hard to deny that Timothy Treadwell, with his scraggly blond hair and half-crazed determinations, is a latter-day real-life iteration on Kinski’s characters.  In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog’s spellbinding documentary of ice-covered wonder, the citizens of a base in Antarctica are focused upon.  With his documentaries, Herzog is a very theme-oriented director, and thus it is difficult to conjure up unsaid analyses of his subjects.  Herzog eloquently observes in voice-over most of the grand connections that are to be made between nature and humanity, and his voice—wise, searching, and endowed with a delicious flair for the dramatic—sounds good doing it.  His obsession with natural landscapes and creatures, perhaps almost as ardent as Timothy Treadwell’s, is evidenced by his selection of footage for Grizzly Man.  Though Treadwell is the unwitting star and psychological centerpiece of the film, Herzog cannot help but join Treadwell in unabashed awe of the magnificent grizzly bears of the Alaskan wilderness.  In a lengthy sequence mid-way through Grizzly Man, two formidably gigantic bears wrestle for the affections of a female.  Their strong, fur-covered arms seem to be alternately hugging and mauling each other, and baritone growls accent the continuous shot.  It is footage nothing short of transfixing.  And once it is over, the realization strikes that this footage was first an indulgence of Timothy Treadwell’s, and then an indulgence of Herzog’s, and now an indulgence of ours.