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 final thirteen years camping with grizzlies during the summer and autumn, far from where other people lived. For the final five years, he had a video-camera 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 he made some of his video 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 like a reasonable response to Treadwell. Paired with Herzog’s narration in the movie, Treadwell follows the trajectory of a bipolar huckster in his youth who found his calling in the wild. His demise and disregard for the safety of his girlfriend are an entirely different matter. While those fates inspire dismay and anger; they also defy explanation.

And still… Treadwell represents something ephemeral at times. Turning his camera on himself, Treadwell does capture his own enthusiasms. 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, his interactions with 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.

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 modeled good stewardship of our natural environment.

Everything Treadwell left behind suggests that he was most interested in himself in that way that artists are. I don’t think it always manifests in narcissism, but given half a minute, born performers turn the camera on themselves. Sometimes that is expressed in preening before a mirror. The literary equivalent is writing an autobiography (or perhaps an autobiographical essay… or even a series of them… on a website…). Alternatively, give a man a movie camera and he will make a movie, perhaps make himself a star.

Ultimately, audience is asked to find their own way. Treadwell disturbs in a way that goes beyond artistic provocation. I cannot explain it in simple terms of terror or horror, using metaphors of slowing down at a car wreck or humanity’s capacity for unimaginable evil. I am left to find my own explanation for finding him interesting. If I disregard him as an activist, I cannot discard him as a performance artist who moved terribly close to living his art. He made a national park into a stage and then crafted a narrative. Character, actor, author, director- all were crafted to walk along a precipice. I refuse, however, to follow that statement with the assertion that he chose to die for his art.

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