Last night I saw Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). Knowing little beyond the basics (a man lives with bears and they eat him) I found it quite surprising. I was expecting Timothy Treadwell to be an extreme or even insane environmentalist, but what really struck me is how completely normal he is: he’s a stereotypical modern westerner. However outlandish his foray into Alaska, he ended up there for mundane reasons: he was living a directionless life, working menial jobs, depressed and a worsening alcoholic, and needed meaning in his life. The headline for most people, of course, is his odd life and dramatic death, and Herzog chose to focus on the footage he left behind—for its great unintended beauty, out of finding in Treadwell a kindred directorial urge, and for the inner turmoil (at times Kinski-esque) that sometimes boils to the surface in Treadwell’s monologues. But what struck me the most was how utterly unexceptional Treadwell was in most regards. It’s not that this desire to go rogue or native might afflict anyone bothers me (I’d welcome it if people were a bit, or even drastically, more unconventional), but rather that such an extraordinary outcome had such common causes.
The narrative we expect is that a man who spends thirteen years living with bears would have been unusual in his early years, but instead his upbringing is banal: he grew up in the suburbs of New York, he liked animals, he was a B student, a decent athlete who was injured and lost a college scholarship, he had problems with drugs and alcohol, potentially had a minor mood disorder, had trouble holding down jobs, and was a failed actor. What’s sad to me is not that Treadwell died (he himself repeatedly says that he would be happy to die with the bears, and he was well aware of the danger), but rather how totally prosaic his life before the bears was. It underscores the problems of modernity, by showing an extreme solution to a very first world problem, but it also forces us to question whether any sensible life choices can satisfy our need for meaning. Had he been clearly deranged, the bear-eats-man narrative could be dismissed as an outlier. The tragedy lies in the fact that he’s one of us. ★★★★☆