This originally appeared in my former online home. I was still getting back in the swing of writing movie reviews when this posted.
The new film from sorta nuts German director Werner Herzog is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor who spent years in the Alaskan wilderness observing, bonding with, obsessing over and serving as self-proclaimed “protector” of a large group of grizzly bears. An inveterate ham, Treadwell documented his experience with a video camera, shooting hours of footage which Herzog merged with new interviews to give us a potent picture of a damaged individual who sought some level of peace out in the wild, over-identifying with the animals there.
Herzog’s assembly of the material filmed by Treadwell is especially strong. Without seeming to be overly manipulative in his approach, Herzog finds especially telling moments and strings them together in a revelatory way. We discover who Treadwell was and then we discover that the persona was, to a large degree, a conscious construct of Treadwell’s. Sometimes it seems that he’s filming with his own possible documentary or television program in mind, sometimes it’s simply to keep himself company, and sometimes it’s little more than a compulsive act. Throughout, he maintains the version of himself he most wants to be. The facade never seems to fall away.
The new footage generated by Herzog is less successful. The interview subjects generally offer little valuable insight into Treadwell or the Alaskan landscape where he toiled. And the couple of moments in which Herzog is supposedly capturing a genuine moment are hopelessly stiff and awkward. The people on the other end of Herzog’s camera are far too conscious of the fact that they’re being filmed. Perhaps Herzog means that to contrast with Treadwell’s continuous performance, but the scenes are weighed down by their rigidity. The self-construction of Treadwell is fascinating, but when these other individuals try it the movie simply stops dead. They’re just not as skilled at it, it seems. Herzog may be tickled by these scenes of the awkward formality of appearing natural for the camera (his kinship with Errol Morris leads me to believe this), but I just wanted more of Treadwell in the woods, creating a sense of purpose through forcefully believing out loud.