Friday, January 27, 2006

Treadwell, Stalin, Chapman and Osama

If you want to see the real face of unreasoning fanaticism in the service of a just cause, you should rent a copy of the Werner Herzog documentary "Grizzly Man." The flick mostly consists of the edited and narrated video tapes shot by Timothy Treadwell's many visits to Alaska where he lived with native Grizzly Bears.

Treadwell loved bears far more than he loved people, but that didn't save him or his lady friend, Amie Huguenard, from becoming Bear Chow when a rogue bruin unexpectedly became hungry and territorial in 2003.

What is apparent early in the film is the extreme hubris of a man who thought he could share turf with large, omnivorous critters, and that somehow, in flagrant violation of every law of nature, he would never get chewed upon.

True, he did establish good contact with the bears over the years, and he did understand their social system. As bears are not pack animals, their social signals are very basic, and Treadwell (a stage name he picked up while living in Hollywood trying to get film and television roles) mastered those basics.

But the bear who ate him didn't respond to the signals. This bear was old and slow, and as anyone who knows large predators will tell you, the wounded, old, and/or slow animals are the ones people need to watch out for. When the fatal attack went down, had Treadwell simply fired off a starter's pistol, he and Ms. Huguenard probably would have been spared their grisly ordeal. But Treadwell regarded all firearms, even those firing harmless blanks, as works of the devil.

The day the bear ate Treadwell and Huguenard, a video camera was turned on throughout the entire attack, but (mercifully) with the lens cap on. The audio recording is, all by itself, so disturbing that after Herzog heard it, he refused to put it into the movie's soundtrack and further recommended to the archival conservator, an old girlfriend of Treadwell's, that she never listen to it and destroy it ASAP.

In the recording, Treadwell, who was attacked first, is heard yelling at Huguenard, telling her to run and save herself. Those entreaties were followed by a dull clanging sound as Huguenard apparently smacked the bear upside the head with a skillet. One could say she chose her destiny by sticking around trying to rescue her man, but then again, had Treadwell possessed an ounce of sense, she (and he) would not have been there in the first place.

It's pretty clear that Treadwell felt no responsibility toward fellow human beings, but what can be said about the value of his mission to save the bears? According to a wildlife expert Herzog interviewed, Grizzly Man did the wild bears no favors by accustoming them to regular contact with humans.

Treadwell spends a lot of time on camera talking about how he loves his furry pals. But there's an odd, proprietary edge to his declarations; he clearly feels he's the only person in the world who can save the bears.

The depth and the true nature of those feelings are manifested in a five-minute video raveout he indulges himself in, cursing and flipping the bird at the very U.S. Parks and Wildlife Service personnel who had earlier helped him with his mission. A Stalinist apparatchik denouncing Leon Trotsky and all his works could scarcely have been more rabid.

And herein lies the sad truth about the Grizzly Man and his kind; they often discover transcendent meaning in their chosen causes in order to compensate for their failures in life. They will always be drawn to the vulnerable, be they humans or animals, to whom they can play sole protector, knight-errant, savior.

Heaven help anyone who associates with these folks while simultaneously daring to harbor a non-compliant vision. Watching Treadwell's virulent antics before his camera, one feels almost glad his life ended before he armed himself with a Louisville Slugger and went after some unsuspecting ranger or bureaucrat whom he perceived to be a traitor to the cause.

The frustrated would-be actor Treadwell never married and had few friends. He also had severe drug and drinking problems prior to finding, in the grizzlies, his life's work.

His flaming anger is of the same variety as Osama bin Laden's livid hatred of Western modernity or Mark David Chapman's paranoid fantasies about John Lennon.

Treadwell's own paranoia became evident when a boatload of fans came looking for him. He hid out, secretly videotaping the visitors and muttering his belief that they meant to harm his bears.

After they left, he found a log on which they'd scratched the words, "We'll be back." A normal person would have taken such a message, under the circumstances, as a promise to one day seek him out and shake his hand. But martyr-in-the-making Treadwell read into the message nothing but malice, menace and a coded death threat.

Unlike Lennon, he was not killed by a deranged fan. Timothy Treadwell was killed by his own demons. Unfortunately, he took an innocent, nature-loving woman with him.

Herzog is a master film maker, and "Grizzly Man" is a great film. See it. If nothing else, it will help you understand the behavior of sociopaths who hate humanity and themselves, all the while swearing their love and allegiance to a "higher" cause.

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