Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Treadwell, a life reviewed
So you're from Long Island, right? And you live this perfect childhood, developing into an athletic and good-looking teen. You go to college on a diving scholarship, but then a problem arises: you discover that you really, really dig booze. All the time, in any way. And in large quantities.
You hurt your back, meaning you can't dive, meaning you lose your scholarship, meaning you go from college parties filled with chicks wanting to bang you right back to living with your parents. And you ain't happy.
After a few months with the 'rents on LI, you say "fuck it" and move out to LA. You figure you have the look to become an actor and so head west to live the dream.
You take a series of odd jobs that a) pay you enough to keep boozin' and parting and b) allow you enough time to audition. You get a couple of bit parts here and there, but after one audition you learn you're a finalist for a new pilot. You just know the show is going to be HUGE and is your ticket to fame and stardom. You party with reckless abandon, because you know you have it. Everything is going well.
But then you don't get the part. Instead, some shmo named Woody Harrelson does. And the show, "Cheers", goes on to be kinda big.
You fall into a tremendous depression. Drinking, drugging, and partying accelerates until you're told by a doctor, "Stop right now or die very soon." And you know it's not a threat. It's a fact.
So what do you do? Why, go to Alaska to live among grizzly bears and dedicate your life to them, of course. I mean, duh.
The person I'm talking about is Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell spent thirteen summers along the Katmai Coast in Alaska, prime grizzly area, living with and filming the bears. During those summers, he lived alone among the animals with no weapons (not only did he not carry a gun, he didn't carry bear pepper spray or even set up an electric bear fence - something you can buy at your local sporting goods store for less than $200 and is 100% effective at keeping bears away from a camp).
Professionally, Treadwell did this to protect the bears and champion their cause. He, along with his former girlfriend Jewel Palovak, started Grizzly People, a "grassroots organization devoted to preserving bears and their wilderness habitat." When Treadwell wasn't summering with the bears in Alaska, he spent the rest of his time traveling to schools across the country, educating students about preservation of bears and the environment (he did not charge a fee for this).
Personally, Treadwell lived among the bears to work through his own demons. What was exactly wrong with Treadwell is impossible to say; certainly he had had his share of problems by the time he started coming to Alaska. But when he started living among the bears, he got so wrapped up in living with them that he, ostensibly, became a bear. He developed personal friendships with the bears, giving them names, talking to them, singing to them. In his films, over 100 hours of video, he talks at length about how much he loves them (really, really loves). After a few years his behavior became extremely bizarre. Bear tour guides reported seeing him in the bush among the bears, and when approached he would growl and huff like a bear before scampering away on all fours.
In September of 2003, Timothy and his girlfriend Amie, who had joined him for that year's expedition, left Katmai Coast to return to Juneau, en route home to LA. However, Timothy got into an argument with the airline rep at the ticket counter over changing his ticket, and so he and Amie returned for one more week to the area they called the "Grizzly Maze", a high traffic series of trails leading to a salmon-filled stream where bears gorged themselves before hibernating for the winter.
On their last day, October 6, 2003, the pilot who was to return Timothy and Amie to civilization landed at the same place that he'd picked up Timothy every year for twelve years before. Timothy was not there. The pilot got out of his plane, calling out for Timothy and Amie, before a grizzly appeared and chased him back into his plane. The pilot did a fly-over of Timothy's camp and his fears were realized: he saw a giant grizzly, hunched over what appeared to be a human rib cage, eating away.
Timothy and Amie were attacked and eaten by a bear or bears on the last day of their 2003 expedition. No one knows how exactly it transpired, but adding to the gruesomeness of the attack was a six minute audiotape, found later, that recorded the sounds of Tim and Amie being mauled and killed. By the time Park Rangers arrived at the seen, there was not much left of Amie and Timothy. Timothy had been eaten entirely, saved for his face and an arm. What was left of Amie's body was partially buried, something that grizzly routinely do with their kills so that they can return and eat them later. Two bears were shot on the scene by the rangers. The stomach contents of the larger one revealed clothing, human hair, bone, and forty pounds of human flesh.
But those close to him had said ad nauseum since his death that this was the way Timothy would have wanted it. He loved the bears, and so dying among them was his fate.
[Regarding the audiotape: Timothy was the first to be attacked, and Amie turned on the camera. However, the lens cap was on. So all that was left was the audio of their screams and death noises. Jewel Palovak owns this tape and it has never been released to the media.]
I remember reading about this on CNN.com when it happened during my usual work procrastination time and thinking, "Holy shit - that's fucking awesome and I'm never going in the woods or anywhere near a tree again." But it wasn't until last week when I was book shopping that I found "Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession With Alaskan Bears". When book shopping, I rely a lot on impulse, and this one really jumped out on me. A picture of a big-ass, scary bear; a kick-ass title; the words "fatal", "obsession", and "bears" in the subtitle; and an entirely reasonable 288 pages. I'm in.
And I was NOT disappointed. I'm not saying that I'm a fast reader or anything, but I read this book in three sittings over the course of two days. Of course, the story is enthralling, but author Nick Jans does a tremendous job of framing Timothy's life and obsession, providing details about Timothy, the Alaskan wilderness, and the nature of the grizzly, and, like those awful New York Times commercials say, really surrounding the story.
And wouldn't you know it - there's film out right now about Timothy's life and death. The film is called "Grizzly Man" and was directed and narrated by German Werner Herzog, who sounds so much like Arnold Schwarzenegger that at times it's hard to take his narration seriously.
The film was good but not great. Some thoughts:
1) Herzog's attempts to artificially create some touching moments, and it doesn't work. One of the people seen in the films is Treadwell's friend (whose name escapes me), who is introduced as "Bob Smith, Friend of Timothy Treadwell/Actor". And boy, does he act. Or rather, boy, is it obvious he is trying really, really hard to act. It's hard to take him seriously when he tries to be deep when talking about Treadwell and he comes off like a grade D actor (which is what he is, I presume). And if he really wasn't acting and is just an emotionally stunted person, I'm truly sorry for this loss.
There were also a lot of interviews with Treadwell's friends, and Herzog employs the old, "Let's keep the camera right in their face when they're finished talking, because they're probably going to break down if we film them in silence long enough" strategy. And they break down they do. But it feels cheap (not the genuine reactions of the aggrieved, but Herzog's manipulation to capture it on film).
2) I spent much of the film with my eyes half-closed and ready to fully close should any autopsy photos suddenly pop up on screen. The coroner plays a minor but substantial role in the film, and he discusses at length the injuries to Timothy and Amie. And it is gruesome, gruesome shit. I was cringing in my seat, expecting to see a shot of a skull with only a face left on it, or the remnants of a mostly-eaten rib cage. Thankfully, this was not shown.
Another concern was the audio tape. It is mentioned at length in the book, but of course a written transcription could never do it justice. A very touching scene in the film occurs in Jewel's home, with Herzog sitting across from her. Jewel sits with the camera that recorded the horror on her lap, Herzog with headphones on listening to the audio tape. Herzog tries to relay to the camera what he's hearing, before falling silent, seemingly overcome with the intensity and horror of the moment, and then asking Jewel, "Could you turn it off, please?" He then grabs her hand and tells her that she shouldn't never listen to it, that she should never look at the autopsy photos that he has seen, and that she should destroy it. All while she nods with tears streaming down her face. If I wasn't dead inside, I would have broken down. The tape is not mentioned again in the film. But I damn did I still want to hear it.
3) The film is worth seeing alone for the footage of Alaska and the bears. Treadwell is literally within feet of these giant bears, sometimes touching them. It's kinda hard for the viewer who is so used to seeing bears in movies to realize THESE ARE NOT TRAINED ANIMALS. And one of these bears later killed and ate him. Crazy.
But if anything, the film was a supplement to the book, putting faces with names and giving a more in-depth picture of Treadwell. Fascinating, sure, but after I saw what Timothy looked like and how he acted around the bears, I was all set and ready to leave thirty minutes into the movie. And yes, I know this is my fault, having finished reading the book only a day or two before, but shut up.
So if you have the time and are interested in bears, the nature of obsession, gruesome deaths, and wilderness, I highly recommend the book. And if you want to save a couple hours and are more of a visual person, check out the film.
And if we've learned anything from Timothy Treadwell's life, it is do NOT fuck with bears. I'm sorry to make a cheap joke and sum up the man's life's work so briskly, but seriously, I can't stress it enough - do NOT fuck with bears. Because they will fucking kill and eat you no matter how cool you think you are with them.
So if any of you reading this right now are friends with any bears, I recommend you start distancing yourself immediately. And buy one electric bear fences and some bear pepper spray. You'll thank me later.