In a year of great nature films like Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and March of the Penguins, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man may be the capper. It’s about a bear fancier named Timothy Treadwell who, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard, was attacked and eaten by a desperately hungry bear that was behind in his pre-hibernation fuel-up. Their bodies (and the bear, which was destroyed) were discovered shortly afterward by the pilot who’d arrived to pick them up from their four-month sojourn in Kodiak Island’s Katmai National Park and Reserve in October 2003.
Treadwell started spending summers with the bears in 1990, and he left behind a remarkable trove of about 100 hours of video footage that he’d taken over his last five seasons. Herzog sifted through the footage, shot interviews with friends, relatives and witnesses, commissioned a score by Richard Thompson and has produced an extraordinarily captivating story of a man on the edge. And in doing so, Herzog has added to his long résumé of films about visionary loners attacking the citadel of God and nature–most famously Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo.
There’s no question that Timothy Treadwell was a troubled man. A talented competitive diver in his youth, Treadwell succumbed to alcohol and abuse of other drugs early in his adulthood before moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Although he was from the Long Island suburbs, he told everyone he was from a remote Australian village and adopted a bad accent to match. A blond surfer with a Prince Valiant haircut, Treadwell resembled Woody Harrelson–which is probably why he told his family that he’d nearly been cast in Cheers (an ironic role given his alcoholism).
When he discovered bears, however, Treadwell found the identity and calling that had eluded him all his life. Not coincidentally, he finally kicked the booze and began getting drunk on the milk of paradise, as Coleridge might have put it. He began living with the bears of the Alaskan peninsula, became a public advocate for their well-being and eventually achieved a level of cult celebrity sufficient for a David Letterman booking.
But Herzog makes it clear that Treadwell’s advocacy was at best superfluous and at worst harmful. The bears were in no danger in their protected sanctuary and, as one biologist points out, Treadwell’s constant presence would cause the bears to believe that humans are harmless.
What, then, drove Treadwell into the company of carnivorous mammals that can stand 10 feet tall and weigh over 1,000 pounds? Herzog wanted to know, and in Treadwell’s video archive, he found many confessional monologues that reveal tenderness, sentimentality, mysticism, megalomania, rage and madness. Repeatedly, Treadwell tells us that he “loves,” “protects” and “will die for” the bears. But his avowed environmentalism sometimes gives way to plain old machismo as he boasts of the dangers he faces, his courage and cunning and his ability to survive among these beasts.
A wanna-be actor and a creature of popular culture, Treadwell actually staged some of his footage, apparently planning to cut together a television program. He shot multiple takes of his commentary, taking care to do takes wearing different clothes so that continuity would be assured. Still, compromised as Treadwell’s motives were, his filmmaking is intrepid and breathtaking. Treadwell got so close to the bears that we even see his hand reaching out to touch their snouts. In one awe-inspiring shot, we watch two fully grown males clash over a female, and the effect is titanic and terrifying.
Despite Treadwell’s interest in bears, his most tender footage contains the indigenous red foxes who scampered around his campsite. The foxes are small and they are prey for the bears. When Treadwell films himself crying over the carcass of a recently predated fox, stroking what remains of the animal, Herzog can’t conceal his impatience. “Where I differ with Treadwell is that he seems to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder,” Herzog intones in his almost hammy German accent.
For all of Treadwell’s macho posturing, he seems to know that he is, in fact, more of a fox than a bear. He often pitched his camp near the foxes’ dens, and in the film’s most light-hearted sequence, a fox takes off with his hat. And it was as a fox that Treadwell died. In the last footage we see, taken a few hours before his death, Treadwell makes his usual pronouncements in the middle of a gathering storm. While looking around nervously, Treadwell seems to slip into the past tense as if he is leaving a testament or a suicide note. He’s clearly frightened, for he seems to know that he’s pushed his luck too far, and indeed, he had probably already met his murderer.
The most–and only–enthralling scenes in Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs are set literally halfway around the world from Treadwell’s Alaska, in Antarctica where we see stark images of vast, jagged glaciers.
It says something that these frigid and desolate vistas are the best part of a movie that is otherwise comprised of sexual encounters back in London between glaciologist Matt (Kieran O’Brien) and his model-thin girlfriend Lisa (Margo Stilley, a North Carolina native). Their relationship consists of hitting the clubs for cool bands like the Dandy Warhols and Franz Ferdinand, and then going back to Matt’s place to snort coke and have actual sex of a kind we normally only see in porn films and (hopefully) in our own bedrooms.
So, there you have it: Sex, drugs and rock and roll, and it’s never been so insipid. While one can appreciate the excitement of a London fling fueled by cocaine and music, the characters in this two-hander (or is 9 Songs a one-hander?) have little of interest to offer anyone else. “You’re boring,” Stilley’s Lisa grouses late in the film, in a bit of dialogue that shouldn’t be credited to anyone. “Boring! Boring! Bo-ring. Do you think there’s anyone named Bo Ring? Bo Derek?”
Winterbottom is a prolific director with diverse and adventurous films under his belt like In This World, 24 Hour Party People and a forthcoming adaptation of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. 9 Songs is a cheaply produced experimental misfire, and Winterbottom seems to know it–he himself edited the video down to a still-unbearable 69 minutes.
But even unsuccessful experiments have their rewards. 9 Songs shows that the chief erotic object for a viewer of a narrative film is not the genitalia but the human face. In 9 Songs, the faces fail to reveal, and so does the movie.