What was Timothy Treadwell doing out there?

I have been thinking about Timothy Treadwell, as seen in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man documentary. Treadwell spent large portions of his last thirteen years camping with grizzlies during the summer and autumn, far from where other people lived. For the final five years, he had a videocamera which he used to document the bears as well as his life. He had co-founded a non-profit to support efforts on behalf of the bears and the video was available to donors. For some of his trips, Treadwell was accompanied by a girlfriend. Ultimately, Treadwell and his companion were killed by a bear.

John Hiscock writing in the Independent at the time of the film’s release captures what feels to me like a reasonable response to Treadwell. Paired with Herzog’s narration in the movie, Treadwell comes off as a bipolar huckster who found his calling. His demise and disregard for the safety of his girlfriend are an entirely different matter. While those fates inspire dismay, anger; they also defy explanation.

Yet… Treadwell represents something ephemeral at times. He does manage to capture his own enthusiasm. Herzog attributes this to the joy Treadwell found in his freedom away from the strictures of society and the pleasure of the company of nature. More than the bears, the interaction of the foxes brings that home. Additionally, Treadwell’s experience feels like an experiment in what happens if you deprive a modern man of all technological means of entertainment except for a movie camera.

Still, we are left trying to understand what Treadwell was attempting while alive. Yes, he was a daredevil and a filmmaker and an educator and an ecologist and a television personality and many other things, but none of that is what I felt after watching Herzog’s movie. Despite some celebrity attention to his foundation, I am not left with the impression that Treadwell accomplished much for bears beyond suggesting that they were more harmless than the reality. Realistically, his constant statements that it was perfectly reasonable to camp among bears with disregard for personal safety could not have been his actual goal. Imagine a park full of people ignoring restrictions on bear interactions- presumably not what Treadwell wanted. In short, I do not come away with the feeling that Treadwell was a good steward of our natural environment.

Everything Treadwell left behind suggests that he was most interested in himself in that way that most artists are. I don’t think it always manifests in narcissism, but given half a minutes, people think about themselves. Sometimes that is expressed in preening before a mirror or the literary equivalent of writing an autobiography. Alternatively, give a man a movie camera and he will make a movie, perhaps make himself a star.

Still, Treadwell is disturbing in a way that cannot characterize as positive. Ultimately, I am left to find my own explanation for finding him interesting, which is another way of saying that audience is asked to find their own way. If I disregard him as an activist, I cannot discard him as a performance artist who moved terribly close to living his art.

I refuse, however, to follow that statement with the assertion that he chose to die for his art.

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