Thursday, March 09, 2006
Men Gone Wild
I avoided going to see Grizzly Man when it was first released, mostly because I figured I would be the only person in the audience who considered it a comedy, and I didn’t want to disturb the serious minded with my hysterics. Any way I looked at it, a movie where a German director of turgid epics about conquistadors narrates film about a whacked out nature boy who gets eaten by bears could be nothing but funny.
When it arrived I put the screener copy of the DVD in a drawer and basically forgot about it except when I would stumble across an article or column pontificating on “The Message” a film like Grizzly Man should impart to the world and found myself getting irritated. The message? The message seems pretty obvious: survival of the fittest is an effective means of weeding out the weak, the infirm and the idiotic.
But then fate intervened. A film happened across my desk called Project Grizzly, another documentary about a man obsessed with grizzly bears. The impulse to compare the two films was too great to ignore. We could be looking at the beginning of a trend, like bungee jumping or scaling Annapurna in a blizzard.
Despite the fact that the subjects share the same obsession, the two documentaries could not be more different. Grizzly Man, the more famous of the two, is the story of Timothy Treadwell, “amateur grizzly bear expert and wildlife preservationist” who spent thirteen summers of his life living with grizzly bears in Alaska, the last five of which he carefully preserved on film. His story would likely never have generated much national interest except for the fact that he left behind years full of tape about his life with the bears and, more notoriously, a final tape which recorded the sounds of Treadwell and his girlfriend being dramatically done in by a grizzly bear.
On the other hand, Project Grizzly is described as “the hilarious underground cult hit documentary” which follows the attempts of Canadian Troy James Hurtubise to construct the ultimate grizzly bear suit, which is to say a protective suit which he could wear while doing “close quarter bear research”. Project Grizzly looked far more promising to me for many reasons, not the least of which were that it is described as a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, and Penn and Teller’s favorite documentary of all time.
Although one tries very hard not to have pre-conceived notions about things, I confess from the moment Tim Treadwell looked into the camera and began to speak he confirmed my worst fears. The first we hear from Treadwell is a lengthy deconstruction of himself as a “kind warrior”. Yes, he may be gentle like a flower, but should a bear actually come after him, they would discover that he is also a samurai, a peaceful, gentle, kind but effectively bear repelling samurai, even more so when you consider he carries no weapons of any kind. He speaks with great enthusiasm about living “on the precipice of death” and not for the first time mentions the fact that no one knows or truly understands the great work that he is doing.
We see him talking to the bears, all of which he has provided with names, as if they are his closest friends. At one point, he practically weeps with awe over a pile of bear scat recently left by one of his bear brethren, or sisteren as the case may be. “This was just inside of her” he gasps, as if he could imagine no better place to be but in the colon of a grizzly bear. As I watched Treadwell make increasingly grandiose statements about the relationship he was forging with these bears, I could not get the Monty Python “getting eaten by an alligator” skit out of my head. As he looks fiercely into the camera and insists that no one has ever forged this kind of close personal relationship with grizzlies that he has; as he speaks to a 10 foot tall (standing) grizzly bear like he was a willful puppy (“such a big bear…he’s such a BIG bear…who’s a BIG BEAR?”) or as he tries to swim with a bear which is clearly trying to catch fish, covering himself in Béarnaise sauce (no pun intended) and throwing himself down the gullet of “Ed” or “Rowdy” begins to seem like the only next logical step.
Early on, Treadwell is good for an easy chuckle. He is clearly cut from the same cloth as too many of the men I gratefully left behind in Boulder; those trustafarians, with their hemp shoes, vegan diets, skunky weed and Daddy’s Visa. Eventually, however, Treadwell begins to really piss me off as he shows what seems to me to be a remarkable lack of any real understanding of bear behavior or life in the wild. One point finds him screaming to the heavens because a long drought has left the bears short on food, resulting in a mother bear eating her cubs. Animals dying because of drought is sad. Adults killing cubs due to a food shortage, or in an attempt to take over a territory is the sort of thing that make humans understandably squeamish. These things are, however, facts of life in the wild. It seems that in Treadwell’s eyes, this evidence of the harsh reality of a truly wild life interfered with his image of a bear utopia.
Just as these two movies have completely different tones, the subjects themselves could not be more different from each other. In fact, as I sat down to watch the adventures of Troy James Hurtubise it occurred to me that Troy and Tim would likely despise each other on sight. Troy is a good old boy. When not actively working on the bear suit project, Troy and his buddies like to sit around drinking coffee at the Country Kitchen buffet and shoot the shit about great hunting trips of yore and what time the missus would be expecting them home. Troy doesn’t mind a gun, but he is particularly fond of his Bowie knife. In fact, the first time we see Troy walking out of the woods, covered in snow, he looks for all the world like Daniel Boone, complete with the leather fringe jacket and his weaponry lashed to his side.
Troy begins his tale with the history that once upon a time, he found himself pinned on the ground by a bear who looked down at him and apparently decided he was not interested in people for dinner after all. After that, the bear suit became Troy’s obsession; a suit that would allow him to re-experience the thrill and the rush of being nose to nose with a bear while removing the threat of decapitation. Troy comes by his "Don Quixote like" tendencies honestly. When we learn that Troy’s father once built an exact scale replica of a Native American village in their backyard, his bear suit seems like part of a long family tradition.
Through archival footage we get to see the evolution of the bear suit. Early versions look like particularly robust hockey goalie outfits. By the time we are brought to present day and Ursa Major VI, the suit has evolved into something like an extra from Lost In Space. It is seven feet tall combining chain mail, vulcanized automobile grade rubber and titanium. The suit is in a natty red, white and black, and I kept expecting it to start shrieking “Danger Will Robinson”.
We then get the joy and pleasure of watching Troy and his gang of buddies test the suit for safety. This involves doing things such as suspending large logs from trees and swinging them into Troy (to simulate the force of a blow from a grizzly paw), and having six guys whale on him in the suit with baseball bats. It’s like the long awaited return of Super Dave Osborne, except that these guys are serious.
In the end, both films end unsuccessfully for the protagonists. Treadwell was eaten and the bear who did the eating, an aging bear who was having difficulty successfully hunting for himself, was shot by the forest service. Hurtubise is ultimately unable to encounter a grizzly bear when they discover that the unwieldy and heavy suit makes it impossible for him to walk across uneven or mountainous territory, which is where most bears tend to be located. One I feel sorry for. The other I not only do not feel sorry for, I am angry that he managed to get a bear killed for doing what comes naturally.
I understand having a passion for animals. We are amazed by their differences, and even more by their similarities to us. Animals speak to that primal part of us that thinks that living in caves and clubbing our food every night was really not such a bad way to live. We envy what we perceive as their freedom. They can, it seems to us, live where they want and eat what they want and sleep where they want and poop where they want. They never have to worry about raises or promotions or taxes.
I think it’s impossible for us not to project human emotions and motivations on the actions of animals. After all, it is only human nature at which we are truly expert. It is painful to imagine that the affection we have for animals is completely unrequited. I believe that Siegfried (or was it Roy?) really loved the tiger that attacked him. I also believe that the tiger was not playing or ‘trying to save him’ or just accidentally fell on him with his mouth open and claws bared. I think the tiger was really trying to attack him, because that is what tigers do.
I don’t doubt that Tim Treadwell’s affection for bears was real and intense. It was, however, misguided and almost willfully pathologically naïve. I once heard a forest ranger say that whether or not a person survives an encounter with a bear is entirely up to the bear. The main difference between Tim Treadwell and Troy James Hurtubise is that Troy understands this fact and respects it. Tim Treadwell thought he was above this truth.
When I was young I used to go visit my dad in his lab. He and his lab mates kept a snake named Noah...Noah the Boa. When it was dinner time for Noah, a lab mouse would find itself participating in a different kind of experiment. Sometimes Noah wasn’t hungry. Snakes can go days or more without eating. After a while of being ignored by the snake, the mouse would begin to think that this was his new home. They would hang out, build little nests in Noah’s coils and sleep. Eventually, though, Noah would get hungry and without much fanfare he would eat his roommate. The mouse thought he was safe. He thought he was home. In the eyes of a four year old looking through the glass, the snake and the mouse were buddies. Up until the time that Noah ate him, the mouse had no reason to believe otherwise.