SCREENS FROM A MAUL
By JAMIE KELLY
of the Missoulian
`Grizzly Man' tells story of man who walked - and died - among Alaska brown bears.
`GRIZZLY MAN,' documentary about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell
Timothy Treadwell said it would never happen, but if it did, he'd be proud to end up as a pile of bear scat.
The self-described grizzly lover was sure that he was one with the giant bears, and for more than a decade he chose to walk among them. They would never turn on him, he figured; they were his friends and he theirs. He told them he loved them. He petted their heads.
But in 2003, on a cold fall day in Alaska's Katmai National Park, the 46-year-old Treadwell did in fact become lunch - as did his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. The bears he claimed to love so much attacked, mauled and partially devoured the two. Disturbingly, the audio of the attack was caught on tape.
An ironic end? A fitting end? A tragic end?
A little of each?
It depends on your view of nature - and human nature. But everybody, it seems, has an opinion about Treadwell's ventures and his demise. Which is why "Grizzly Man," a Lions Gate documentary, created such a stir at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the Alfred P. Sloan award.
"That's really the story. You have to come to terms with how you feel about this guy," said Louisa Nye, film coordinator for the Whitefish Theatre Co. "Was he way off base or onto something as far as understanding these big, wild animals?"
It was Nye's fascination with the film that led her to secure its post-Sundance theatrical premiere in Whitefish on Thursday, a full four months before its nationwide release and debut on the Discovery Channel. Shortly before Sundance, she had read about the documentary in the festival's guide, and when she saw its success there, she knew she had to be the first to get it.
"I asked a friend of mine at Sundance if he could secure it for our theater and lock it down," said Nye. "Lions Gate was going to open it in the summer. I kept gently nagging and saying, `I think this could be really great.' "
Directed and narrated by the award-winning German filmmaker Werner Herzog, "Grizzly Man" neither paints Treadwell as crazy nor sympathizes with him, Nye said. Through interviews with his friends and family, it sketches a portrait of a man convinced he had a special connection with nature that shielded him from its dangers. Interwoven with those interviews is footage shot by Treadwell during his years among the bears.
"One of Herzog's trademarks is he likes to get into the mind of whomever he's documenting, finding what drives them," said Nye. "He does that very well."
It's left for you to decide if Treadwell was a lunatic or a tragic figure.
Chuck Bartlebaugh, of Missoula, met Treadwell on a couple of occasions. As executive director of the National Be Bear Aware and Wildlife Stewardship Campaign, he feared from the beginning that Treadwell's antics were sending the wrong message about wildlife to Americans.
"He was acting in my belief in an inappropriate manner, and he was misleading the public," said Bartlebaugh.
No thanks to Treadwell and others, he said, millions of Americans now think it's perfectly OK to approach and feed wild animals.
"Currently there is over $100 million being spent to give the public the impression it's OK to approach, follow, interact with, touch and feed wildlife," Bartlebaugh said. "It is virtually just about everyone. It's become the up close and personal generation of wildlife."
Is Bartlebaugh in favor of making a movie about the man's life? It depends on whether it glosses over his faults, he said.
"If it explains that A, he did not have permission from the National Park Service to do what he was doing, and B, that they were trying to stop him from doing what he was doing, then yes. If it makes him out to be a researcher, then no."
In Nye's view, "Grizzly Man" is balanced.
"I think it's very objective. I felt badly for him because of what happened, but you come away understanding how misguided he was. Because no matter what you think you know about this big creature next to you, it's a wild animal and they should stay that way. You're just tempting fate by trying to call them your friends."
The film can be frightening. Some scenes are almost unbearable to watch as you witness Treadwell approaching - even touching - animals that have the power to knock your head off with one well-placed swat.
"In one scene, he's touching a grizzly on the nose to get his camera's light meter right," Nye said. "You're just going, `Oh my God.' "
The bodies of Treadwell and Huguenard were found by an air taxi pilot who was flying in to pick up the couple. Alongside their bodies was a video camera that aurally recorded the gruesome attack.
On the tape, Treadwell urges Huguenard to hit the grizzly that was attacking him.
That recording is not present in the film. Herzog listened to it and decided it was too disturbing.
"It wouldn't take the story any farther, so he did not use it in the film," said Nye.
On hand at the premiere on Thursday will be a panel of bear experts who will discuss the film after its showing. Also present will be some executives from Lions Gate Films.
You may walk out of the theater disturbed, angry - all the polarizing emotions that Treadwell was capable of evoking in life, and now in death.
But perhaps the truth is more prosaic than all of that. As Nye so aptly put it: "Treadwell was such an oddball."
Entertainer editor Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com .