Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Favorite Scene: Grizzly Man


Werner Herzog isn’t a man who is easily fazed. He makes films out of sport, rather than lasting creative impact. For him, eating a shoe, dragging a boat across a mountain, threatening to kill a lead actor, climbing an about-to-erupt volcano, filming on every continent – it’s all for the thrill of the chase. As in, Herzog seems to chase whatever idea he gets in his head, and bring it to life by any means necessary. Whether that involves dressing an actor up as Dracula, or documenting the oldest cave paintings known to civilization, if Herzog aims to tell a story, then the story will be told, hardships be damned.

I mention this as evidence to the fact that Werner Herzog has put himself through a lot. And I’ve seen most all of it. I’ve watched nearly every film Herzog has made and read every prose detailing his process. And never once have I seen him flinch. Hell, the dude got shot while being interviewed by BBC and didn’t even bat en eye. “It’s not a significant bullet,” he earnestly quipped, before finishing the interview. 

The point of all this is that while Herzog is unquestionably a man venturing on his own, he is never the slightest bit dismayed by the cruelty that life can bestow. That is, of course, save the brief scene in Grizzly Man, when Herzog appears shaken, deflated, and speechless (three traits Herzog never exudes), all at the same time.
Grizzly Man documents the many summers Timothy Treadwell spent in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, where he was eventually killed by one of the grizzly bears he so adored. What remained of Treadwell’s legacy was more than 100 hours of film he shot while living with the bears, and Herzog took it upon himself to cut Treadwell’s footage into a cohesive documentary.

Although Herzog narrates Grizzly Man (because, when you have one of the greatest voices in the history of human voices, how can you not narrate your own films) he is only seen on camera once. Instead, he lets Treadwell tell his own tale via home video, while Treadwell’s close friends and family members attempt to fill in the gaps. If Herzog graces the screen in one of his own documentaries, it’s for damn good reason, which is certainly the case of his brief time on screen in Grizzly Man.

Midway through the film, Herzog sits before one of Treadwell’s best friends as Herzog listens to an audio recording of Treadwell being mauled to death. The woman in the scene is Jewel Palovak, Treadwell’s longtime friend who legally owned all of the footage Treadwell recorded in Alaska, including the audio of his demise. Palovak has never listened to the recording of her friend dying, but she let’s Herzog listen to it, perhaps as a way for the filmmaker to gain perspective.
While Herzog listens to the audio via headphones, the camera slowly pans in on Palovak, as her face becomes more contorted with fear and curiosity. The lens gently pans to the left to reveal Herzog listening to the recording. He brings his hand to his face and rubs the bridge of his nose. He stares at the ground and quietly asks Palovak to turn the recording off. He takes the headphones off and, clearly unnerved and speechless, stares at Palovak who let’s out a nervous laugh that quickly turns to a cry (which itself is truly devastating). And then Herzog says one sentence that epitomizes who he is as a man and as a filmmaker:

“Jewel, you must never listen to this.”

One day during a History of the Documentary course I took in college, my professor entered the room and said he wanted to show us something. For whatever reason, we didn’t have time to watch the entire film, so the professor verbally established the scene with context, and we all watched Werner Herzog listen to Timothy Treadwell die. This scene was my introduction to the unique world of Werner Herzog, and my cinematic life hasn’t been the same since.
There’s an obvious, but no less serious, moral dilemma at the heart of this scene: does Herzog share the horrific audio with us, or let us simply imagine? It’s a tough choice, one that has positive and negative aspects either way. And I don’t use the word positive lightly here. But take, for instance, Spike Lee’s insistence on showing several pictures and video clips of dead bodies in his flawless Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke. I’m glad Lee included those shots, because it helps paint a full picture of pointless government inaction. But for the sake of Grizzly Man, we all owe Herzog our gratitude for exercising the sound of silence.

I think a few people have heard Timothy Treadwell die. Treadwell, his girlfriend who was killed along with him, a coroner for scientific reasons, and Herzog himself. That’s a small group, and Herzog kept it that way for a reason. I personally can’t imagine carrying the intimate sound of death around in my head. Herzog has been through a lot in his years as a rogue filmmaker, but I venture to guess that listening to the final moments of Timothy Treadwell’s life ranks among the most unsettling.



Previous installments of My Favorite Scene include:

20 comments:

  1. "He makes films out of sport, rather than lasting creative impact. For him, eating a shoe, dragging a boat across a mountain, threatening to kill a lead actor, climbing an about-to-erupt volcano, filming on every continent – it’s all for the thrill of the chase."

    I don't know. Whatever he's doing, I wouldn't characterize it as 'thrill of the chase'. There is little thrill or feeling of chase in Herzog's films. Rather, Herzog seems to prefer the idea of the quest.
    A 'chase' is about going after exciting topics. It's like going on a hunt.
    Herzog prefers things that are slow and heavy. The 'adventure' in FITZCARRALDO is more like dragging a heavy cross than chasing after something thrilling and exciting.
    The Grizzly bears in GRIZZLY MAN were hardly exciting. And there was no real suspense in the material since we know the guy came to a grisly end.
    I think Mel Gibson, in APOCALYPTO, took the approach that was closer to a chase, not least because much of the film is literally one long chase.

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    1. It's funny, because I certainly didn't mean "chase" in the literal sense, but rather, much more in the vein of, "...the idea of the quest."

      I meant chase as in the nagging thought or idea in his mind that he has to film in order to subside. Can I fly to an evacuated island to film a volcano that's about to erupt? Can I drag this boat over a mountain and somehow gain a better understanding of myself? Can I shed light on the American justice system by interviewing people who are about to die, even though I think they shouldn't?

      Those notions, to me, are all about a man chasing an idea or a conflict, either in society or in himself. Herzog doesn't do thrills or excitement, we agree on that. But he does chase, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise.

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  2. That's a scene I will never forget. All because we're watching Herzog listening to a man and woman being mauled to death yet we don't hear the tape. I think he makes a humanistic decision to not reveal the audio. Just by the look of his face and his response is enough for me to realize that I'm glad that tape is destroyed. I don't think I want to hear it either.

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    1. Yes, exactly. That is exactly why I'll never forget the scene either. It's written all over Herzog's face, and that was a very humanistic decision of him to not include it in the film. He'll always have top honors in my book, for that reason and many others.

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  3. Excellent write-up! I've only seen Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Rescue Dawn, so I've got a lot to discover with Herzog's documentaries.

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    1. Thanks man! He's made some truly great documentaries. Very patient, very slow, but very telling. I have yet to see a bad one. Enjoy!

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  4. When I watched this scene for the first time (I was in a doco studies class at uni, and we got to watch this on a nice big screen), I felt like Jewel a little. I was scared, but I was also morbidly curious, and then I was sick with myself for almost wanting to hear it. It was such a weird feeling. Amazing post. I've got a dvd set of five Herzog films that I've been meaning to start for ages now (including Aguirre, Nosferatu and...Woyzeck I think).

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    1. That's so cool that we first saw this scene under such similar circumstances. What you described is exactly what makes the scene so effective. By us watching Herzog listen to it, but actually not hearing it ourselves, it forces us to dare wonder what it sounds like. For instance, if presented with the option, would you listen to the tape? Very unsettling thought, in my opinion.

      I think I have that exact DVD set - cannot recommend those films highly enough!

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  5. A very powerful scene, but one of my favorites was when Timothy found the dead fox. He was crying and all upset, but you see the real hurt and pain the guy has, and you can't help but feel the same. Just a great movie, overall. Solid stuff bro. Solid stuff.

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    1. Thanks Dan! Always appreciate your very kind comments, my friend.

      That scene with the fox is just devastating. You're right, he really, truly does care about these animals. What an oddly unique man.

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  6. I remember watching that scene and thinking that there is no way that I would ever have listened to the audio. Perhaps Herzog thought that his disconnect from the man (unlike the woman who had the tape) would keep him from being bothered by it. I do wonder if that sequence made the woman even more curious to listen to it, though, and I sometimes think she might have because of it.

    The scene that I will always remember, for a different reason, is early in the film where a grizzly is standing up rubbing its head on a branch. It drops down to all fours and starts walking towards Treadwell. You can hear the fear in his voice as it approaches. The film then cuts to Treadwell standing in the same spot as the bear was and the branch is something like three or four feet over Treadwell's head. His exclamation, "That's a big bear!" was, if anything, an understatement.

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    1. I too have wondered if Herzog's listening to the tape actually made Jewel more interested in hearing it, or if she just destroyed it right away.

      The scene you described is so memorable, definitely one of my favorites in the film. It speaks so well to the many facets of Treadwell's personality.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Chip!

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  7. Great write-up Alex...I waffle between this and Lessons Of Darkness as my fave of his documentaries.

    However, I'd like to propose the possibility of a different twist to the scene - that there is in fact no audio of Treadwell's death. Bear with me here (sorry, I didn't actually mean that as a pun...). Herzog is known for trying to find the "ecstatic truth" in a scene - the real core truth of an idea or situation without worrying about the specifics or details. In other words, he doesn't always tell the whole truth in a scene and has even told lies in order to get to the "grander" truth.

    Though it may seem a bit farfetched that he would pretend to hear the deaths (especially in front of Treadwell's friend), I can't help but have that idea bounce around in mind as something that Herzog would do. Not as a mean-spirited prank, but in order to get a final coda and emotional reaction to this man's death. There's enough footage of him in the film that we get to know him and feel sorry for his passing, but since we know he dies from the outset this audio tape scene is the kicker...

    It doesn't really matter if the tape exists or not - the scene is just as affecting either way because Jewel's reaction is quite honest and genuine and shows her love for the man. Certainly a grander truth.

    As obsessed and "nuts" as Herzog is, he's a trickster too. I think he delights in playing with his audience while also getting them to his end goal. One of the reasons I'm a huge fan of his as well.

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    1. I agree, it's totally within Herzog's bag of tricks to do just that. But it doesn't matter because the result on the audience is the same.

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    2. Bob, first off, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an insightful comment.

      Now, although I've never considered that there is no audio of Treadwell's death, I certainly can't deny that Herzog is willing to lie or leave out truths in order to achieve that grander truth. He openly admits that he staged much of Little Dieter Needs to Fly in order to make the present day Dieter seem more cautious and paranoid. I can recall a few other examples of him bending the truth as well, but I've got to tell you, if it was revealed that there was no audio in this Grizzly Man tape, I would be very offended. Or rather cheated. Herzog will always be one of my favorite directors, but that'd be low, in my opinion.

      Either way, damn interesting thought. Thanks again for stopping by!

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    3. Oh and thanks Bonjour for stopping by as well. I always appreciate your comments!

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  8. That was definitely the most powerful scene in the film for me.

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    1. Yeah man, heavy heavy shit. The old 'Zog getting emotional.

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  9. Late to the party here. I love documentaries, and have watched several of Herzog's non-narrative films, but when I watched this scene I was outraged. I have since calmed down, but for Herzog to film himself listening to Treadwell die is at best self-indulgent and at worst exploitative to an almost pornographic extreme. I understand that the film is presented as Herzog himself wanting to understand his unique subject, but I think you have to draw a line somewhere when you are presenting material that documents another's life.

    Listen to the audio if you're given permission to, but don't film yourself doing so.

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    1. While I sincerely respect your articulate and thought-out response, I obviously disagree. Had Herzog included the audio, I'd be with you.

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