It’s still hard to believe that 2005’s Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man is real. Timothy’s personality is over the top, the beats of the documentary are comedic, and the interviews often seem extremely staged, especially the coroner’s spooky performance. The presentation of the film leads many to wonder about it’s veracity. Despite news reports about Timothy’s death and a rich recorded history of Timothy’s work and presence, upon viewing the film some people still think his death, and even Timothy himself, was all a hoax.
All documentaries are fake and staged to some degree. Story telling is artifice, even if the subject matter is nonfiction and all the facts are solid. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the gloss of a powerful a documentary that we don’t stop to think about it, but Werner Herzog’s documentaries needle us. He asks us to question. Herzog has said that he sees fiction films as documentaries of actors, and documentaries as performances. His work prods at our perceptions, asking us to consider what is truly real and truly fake. Although he dealt with the pathos of his life is a very different way than most of us, Timothy Treadwell is just as real and fake as the rest of us.
Timothy was not a scientist, he was a storyteller. Before he looked for some sort of bear salvation, he was an aspiring actor from Long Island who changed his name and made up tall tales about his background. After he staked his path to commune with bears, he acquired a wealth of knowledge of bears and a sober reverence for their power to kill him. He safely survived for 12 summers living among them in close proximity, but he also crossed dangerous boundaries with them that were inspired by the anthropomorphized storybook narratives he spun about them. His mission was delusional; it was an obsession with an objective he made up. The bears he claimed to be protecting lived on a Nature Preserve where they were monitored by the National Park Service. As Herzog points out in the film, he may have actually endangered the bears he was close to by normalizing them to humans. He was not on a evidence-based mission; but an emotional one, a theatrical one, a documentary one.
Timothy tells stories about the bears because he’s looking for himself. He says he’s saving the bears and the foxes, but he’s trying to save himself. We all do that to some degree, but Timothy was mixing real danger in with his narratives. He gave up drugs to be with the bears, but the bears were a drug in themselves. He became intoxicated by the thrill of their threat, and drank up the idea of himself as their savior like a sweet elixir.
“It was always clear to me that it wouldn’t be a film on wild nature, that it would be much more a film on our nature,” Herzog has said about the film. “And looking deep into every human being is an abyss and you get vertigo looking into it, and of course, Treadwell is a very complex character full of doubts and self-aggrandization. Full of demons that haunt him and exhilarations and swings in mood and seeing a mission that he finds himself into and being almost paranoid for moments and being very sane and very clear at others. It’s not that I can say I expected one certain type of character. I just kept completely open and I show him in all his contradictions.”
“Apparently, he planned a big movie with him as the rock star Prince Valiant, and of course, I give him credit and give him space for being a big star,” Herzog says. “And I give him credit for being a grandiose filmmaker. He has some footage that we have not seen ever before in our lives of grandiose beauty, and at the same time, of course, he was disturbed and he was partially paranoid in moments, and he was very sane in other moments and in depressed moods and wonderful moods how he feels about himself and what a great guy he is. So everything that makes us human beings was right in him.”
Timothy had a conviction that he was looking after the bears because it gave his life purpose and meaning. Others, including other bear experts and park rangers, disagreed with Timothy on that point. Herzog wasn’t interested, though, in whether or not what Timothy was doing was right or wrong, he was interested in how Timothy’s strivings demonstrate something we can all relate to. We’re all searching for our bears, our “calling,” and often we are just as misguided as Timothy was in thinking that we were helping. We laugh at Timothy, but he is familiar to us. There are parts of him in us and the people we know. The outrageously familiar are usually the most compelling subjects.
Timothy seems to have been exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, which some British psychiatrists took a crack at diagnosing based on Herzog’s film. Their verdict was possible bipolar disorder, ADHD, and narcissistic personality disorder (which is no longer listed in the latest DSM.) Although many people will be diagnosed or experience symptoms of mental illness within their lifetime, people struggling with these disorders aren’t universal mirrors. I far too often speak in universals when I am merely recounting experience through my own dirty windows, my own symptoms of mood, my own misconceptions about reality.
Still, as distorted and alien another person’s experience may be, sometimes warped and weathered by delusion, pain, and misfiring neurons, there is still a thread that runs through all humans. We are fascinated most by ourselves, but we are thrilled by the lives of other humans. We search for ourselves in them, and even when they are mostly a different being entirely, we are still there in them somewhere. When we gaze at another’s face, pick through their lives, dissect their words and actions, we are still just Narcissus, looking for ways to relate and contrast ourselves during this encounter with another. Like Timothy, we see humanlike faces in animals, and can’t help but build an imagined life for them that reflects our own understanding of the world. We look at Timothy, and like Herzog, we try to parse him out, look for motivations, shake our heads at his folly.
Taking a sober view at him erroneous worldview requires that we consider that our own is vulnerable. Maybe our motivations and beliefs are fueled more by ego and emotion than we’d like to think. We’re all caught in our personal narratives, and the more we try to untangle them, the more threads are exposed. The harder we pull, the tighter they knot.
Like Timothy, we also, in varying ways, want to be the star of our lives. We want to be so big a star that we are noticed in the lives of others, that we bleed into their light. We don’t all exhibit ourselves, but most of us do in some way, even if it’s just a stray Facebook post, considering what we wear, or being friendly. We try to fling out messages about who we are to others, casting ourselves at turns in our inward and outward narratives as a hero or the villain.
When we cast ourselves as a nothing, as we often do, we feel very worthless. When we fear that we are noticed by no one else, that our light is but a flicker next to a blazing sun and we are not making any sort of mark in the world, it’s scarier than being a villain. We want to be seen and heard. We want to figure out who we are so we can show someone else.
We try very hard at forming this outward image, but no one sees us the way we see ourselves, and that’s a terror and a relief. Most of the time, though, no one even gets a glimpse of who we think we are unless they read our diaries or see intimate videos like the ones we see of Timothy Treadwell. There is a special kind of vulnerability to the stories and lies we tell ourselves, to the pulsing tales that spill out when we think we are alone with nothing but our pulsing hearts. It can be an utter bore, but when edited well, the passions of our secret selves is the most fascinating subject matter around.
Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell, but it’s not entirely his narrative. Grizzly Man is a grand collaboration. Herzog colors it with a blanket of doom and curiosity. He cuts together Timothy’s words, accenting them with very theatrical and dramatic interviews featuring people he knew. The interviews, as strange as they come off, are not unlike Timothy’s footage. He’s trying to tell a heroic story, one that bleeds into despair during candid moments, but always comes back to the pure and pristine cause he wants to be fighting for. Herzog’s tale, but contrast, is a tragedy.