I’d like to use this post to explore some of the themes from my previous posts (here and here) in relation to Werner Herzog’s 2005 Grizzly Man. Categorized as it is within the genre of documentary film, it is important to first discuss Herzog’s comments on the genre of documentary in general and on Grizzly Man in relation to that genre in particular. In her essay “Rediscovering Film Studies” (2007), Jill Nelmes suggests that “the construction of ‘seamless’ narratives in history and in film draws attention to the uncomfortable similarity between the production of what we call the factual and what we call the fictional” (Nelmes 7). She remarks on the ability of the French histoire to maintain the ambiguity between the production of fact and the production of fiction whereas the distinction in English between history – a genre presumed to be based on facts, documents and research – and story – a genre produced out of performative engagements with conventions as well as historical and cultural context – sustains “the illusion that it is possible to distinguish stories about the past written by learned experts called historians from other kinds of stories that circulate in culture” (Nelmes 7). Paul Ward, in an essay of the same collection, takes up this distinction in relation to the genre of documentary, particularly in the post-Second World War movements of cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema. Alongside the narrative-driven documentary forms of Robert Flaherty and John Grierson, Ward suggests that there developed forms of observational documentary guided by the “sense that it distils all the ideas about the camera (and film) as a recording device that can capture an unmediated slice of actuality, with attendant beliefs in accuracy, objectivity and impartiality” (Ward 183). While cinéma vérité, in the work of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin for example, was much more participatory and performative than observational, involving extensive interaction between filmmaker and subject, its adaptation in the U.S. lead to the so-called Direct Cinema movement where filmmakers like Richard Leacock, Robert Drew, Don Pennebaker, and, to an extent the Maysles Brothers, upheld the distinction between narrative construction and historical documentation, asserting “that the presence of the camera and filmmakers did not have an impact on the subjects – or not much of one, at least” (Ward 183).
It is precisely against this particular iteration, and the desires for unmediated representations of actuality that they speak for, that Herzog positions himself. In his 1999 “Minnesota Declaration,” he declares that “so-called Cinema Vérité is devoid of vérité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants” (Herzog, “Declaration”). And in his collected interviews with Paul Cronin, Herzog goes so far as to state, “I truly hope to be one of those who finally bury cinéma vérité for good” (Cronin 239). It is not that “truth” or “reality” hold little importance for Herzog. On the contrary, as for Deleuze and Guattari, it is a question of which “truths” and which “realities” are at stake and Herzog suggests that he is concerned with the poetic, ecstatic truths that film is able to reach through fabrication, imagination, and stylization (Herzog, “Declaration”). It is the moment in which film is able to call our entire sense of reality into question and Truth, ecstatic truth, is illuminated (Herzog, “Ecstatic Truth”). These are the terms in which Herzog conceptualizes Grizzly Man. The film is not what he would call a bureaucratic documentation of Timothy Treadwell’s thirteen summers in Katmai National Park and Preserve and the work he conducted studying grizzlies. Rather, as he states in an interview with Marrit Ingman, “The kind of insight we gain through [Treadwell] into our innermost nature is just astonishing. And that’s the key to the film. It’s not a film about wild nature. It is a film about the deepest human condition” (Ingman). Dismantling the distinction between fiction and documentary, Herzog says of his work that,
I am able to penetrate into a deeper stratum of truth most films do not even notice. The deep inner truth inherent in cinema can be discovered only by not being bureaucratically, politically and mathematically correct. In other words, I start to invent and play with the ‘facts’ as we know them. Through invention, through imagination, through fabrication, I become more truthful than the little bureaucrats. (Cronin 240)
Understanding Herzog’s relationship to certain sub-genres of the documentary form in general, and his understanding of Grizzly Man’s relation to that genre in particular, is important to not only providing an effective reading of the film but also in challenging the limits of some of the film’s conservative, critical receptions.
Grizzly Man provoked a maelstrom of critical responses that almost seem like caricatures of the traditional ways in which human-animal relations are read – representatively, metaphorically, pathologically, etc. That is, critics have in large part read the film according to a representative logic where Treadwell represents the failed attempt to suture the chasm between man and nature in general and man and animal in particular. Furthermore, critics seem to have read Herzog’s framing and narratological interventions into Treadwell’s over 100 hours of archival footage against his own understanding and method of film making, remaining on the surface – the bureaucratic level of truth – without attending to the ironies, complexities, and inconsistencies which continually undermine the film’s most dogmatic “declarations about the essential hostility of nature” (Pick 170). Treadwell, as I have mentioned, spent thirteen summers in Katmai National Park and Preserve studying and living among grizzlies, only to be eaten along with his partner Amie Huguenard by one of these bears – known only as “Bear 141” – in 2003. Very early in the film Herzog claims that in Treadwell’s footage “lay dormant a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confinements of his humanness and bond with the bears, Treadwell reached out seeking a primordial encounter.” Yet critics have nonetheless remained predominantly fixated on Treadwell as an intense, effeminate, and high-pitched bear enthusiast who gave cuddly names to the bears and foxes with which he was living, Disneyfying his nonhuman co-habitants.
What Anat Pick designates as the “standard reading” of Grizzly Man, that is, an oversimplified reading driven by a fear of sentimentalism, is initiated by one of the film’s interviewees, Sam Egli. He says,
Treadwell was, I think, meaning well, trying to do things to help the resource of the bears but, to me, he was acting like a, like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there instead of wild animals. Those bears are big and ferocious and they come equipped to kill you and eat you, and that’s what he was asking for: he got what he deserved in my opinion.
In a review of the film, Oliver Burkeman of The Guardian echoes this verdict writing, “Treadwell’s fatal error, Herzog makes clear, was to believe in a Disneyfied version of nature: for all his talk of being killed, he saw the bears as fundamentally cute” (Burkeman). Pick suggests, however, and I believe rightly so, that Grizzly Man is too complex and multi-layered a text to remain at the surface with a representation of a “goofy” and ill-fated protagonist. In fact, in the testimony of Egli cited above, he hypothesizes that the only reason Treadwell lasted as long as he did was because the bears must have sensed that something was wrong with him, specifically that he was “mentally retarded.” Pick notes the conflicting ways in which the bears are configured: on the one hand, they are environmental assets (i.e. “the resource of the bears”) while, on the other hand, they are anthropomorphized with the attribute of comprehending and responding to human eccentricity. Pick finds irony in the way in which Egli’s testimony ultimately supports Treadwell’s claim that he had found a way of living with, or alongside, the grizzlies. “Such inconsistencies,” Pick writes, “run through the film’s various testimonies and illustrate the false logic of anthropomorphism to sidestep overlaps between human and animal life” (Pick 171).
Furthermore, the problem of anthropomorphism is, for Pick, suspicious. It seems to imply that in trans-species relations, the human actor is only projecting human or, better, subjective qualities onto the animal whereas in inter-human relations there is an immediate access to or identification with a subjective interior of the other person. But even Kant (1956) radically problematized any sense of comfort in having a direct and transparent way of accessing our/selves and others. Pick writes, “As humans we invest the gaze of our fellows with reciprocity and response, but the investment entails – always – a desire and a leap of faith…This gesture, by which humans presume a communicable interiority, is precisely anthropomorphic” (Pick 172). Rather than reading Treadwell and Herzog’s editing of the archive simply, then, Pick suggests finding in Treadwell’s footage a deep love – at times “dangerous, all-engrossing, and just a little mad” (Pick 174) – that pushes the urgency of thinking through the relations between humanity and animality. Rather than a drama about the failed attempt to suture the chasm between man and animal, Pick urges us to read the film as “situated on the cusp of an impossible transition between man and nature, human and animal, the in-between of the encounter” (Pick 178-9); and if the film strikes us as awkward or leaves us embarrassed, it is due to a desire to remain all-too-human.
Pick’s book, Creaturely Poetics (2011), conducts a powerful analysis of Herzog’s oeuvre to combat the claim that his work demonstrates very little regard for the “natural” world. Tearing his work from the humanistic terrain of Romanticism, a reading given to Herzog’s work by critics like Timothy Corrigan and Alan Singer, Pick wants to suggest reading Herzog within the transhuman domain of the tragic in which the “human” is “not so much rejected as caught in mid-unraveling, a process simultaneously heroic and self-destructive” (Pick 153). She continues: “In Herzog’s nonfictions the human being is thrown into situations of harsh necessity. In the course of these ordeals, traditional human markers (reason, language, free will, and morality) gradually give way to the tragic and the creaturely” (Pick 153). The connection Pick builds here between Nietzsche and Herzog is important. As Nietzsche’s retranslation of man into nature is ill-conceived as prelapsarian or romantic, Pick wants to suggest that Herzog, too, is concerned with thinking “the human” along the material continuum. “The creaturely,” she writes, “neither reduces nor simply restores man to nature. It signal’s Herzog’s peculiar attentiveness to the material and the animal that pass through the human” (Pick 156). Whereas Pick’s reading of Grizzly Man is predominantly focused on the subject of the film, i.e. Treadwell, I would like to pay particular attention to how Herzog enacts the creaturely through form, namely, in the use of visual transposition and the contradictions between narrative and visual.
The film is, in large part, guided by a debate between Treadwell and Herzog about the proper conceptualization of “nature.” This becomes most apparent as Treadwell encounters the dismembered paw of a bear cub and the half-eaten corpse of a fox, both particularly affective scenes given the film’s development of Treadwell’s intense relationships with both species. Herzog narrates, “Perfection belonged to the bears but once in a while Treadwell came face to face with the harsh reality of wild nature. This did not fit into his sentimentalized view that everything out there was good and the universe in balance and in harmony.” As Treadwell sits over the corpse of the fox he says, “Oh, god! I love you. I love you and I don’t understand. It’s a painful world” to which Herzog must now explicitly state his formal disagreement. He states, “Here I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.” As Pick notes,
This rehearses Herzog’s long-held view of nature in Burden of Dreams (1982), and in My Best Fiend (1999), in which Herzog mocks [Klaus] Kinski’s view of the jungle as ‘erotic’ by calling it ‘obscene.’ He speaks of the jungle as a place of constant struggle and death, terms that reverse Kinski’s [and, we could say, Treadwell’s] vulgar romanticism. (Pick 171)
Whereas Pick wonders whether nature’s murderousness is not replicated in the murderousness of civilization, I am lead to wonder, in addition, whether Herzog’s declarations are not ironic deployments, weak caricatures of the various arguments which preserve the distinction between the “safety” of civilization and the “dangers” of the wild. Whether such declarations are made by Herzog or his interviewees, they are often soon contradicted by either further narration or by the footage itself. Within the same argument about the murderousness of nature, Herzog will show footage of young bears playing games of chase, and suggest that we are watching these animals in their “joys of being, in their grace and ferociousness.” This internal contradiction about the proper conceptualization of nature, which I would suggest runs through all of Herzog’s “nature” films, indicates an undecidability that disrupts the “self-congratulating sobriety” (Pick 168) read into his work: an ontology of “nature” that is too complex to be captured by either an overly-sentimentalized or overly-pessimistic view of the more-than-human, material world. It is an engagement with the world akin to Deleuze and Guattari’s engagement with the body, suspending the pre-formulated in favor of emergent and situated practices.
The undecidability of “nature’s” “natural tendencies,” an undecidability which neither restores nor reduces the human to the material order, leads us to Herzog’s use of visual transposition to evoke the material and animal which run through his human subjects. This point becomes most apparent at the end of the film. As Treadwell films a bear that sits only feet away from Treadwell’s partner, Amie, Herzog speaks of the bear’s blank stare (figure 1).
He states, “what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” I would like to look at how both Herzog’s claims about the blank stare and its connection to the essential hostility of nature, of which the half-bored interest in food is a testament, are complicated when placed in relation to particular moments in the film.
To do so, we must pay attention to the way in which Herzog stages his interviews. Once again twisting the conventions of the documentary form, which often attempts to capture testimonials in “real time” as an unaffected bearing witness, there is something remarkably staged about the testimonials in Grizzly Man. Warren Queeney, an actor and close friend of Treadwell, appears to be performing a script with choreographed intonation, cadence, and stage positioning. In the scene in which Franc Fallico, the coroner of Treadwell and Huguenard’s case, returns the watch that was found on Treadwell’s dismembered arm to his former partner, Jewel Palovak, we see two characters awkwardly caught up in the performance of a ritual, unsure of the timing of their dialogue. Finally, in the two separate testimonies of Fallico on his own, in which he reconstructs the events of the night Treadwell and Huguenard were eaten, we see that not only does Fallico seem to be performing a script, but he’s markedly unsure of what to do with his hands once Herzog allows the camera to linger (figure 2).
The lingering of the camera is not unusual in Herzog’s work, either in the filming of human subjects or of landscapes. It points, I would suggest, to two things: first, Herzog’s engagement with the excesses of film, the inability for directorial intervention to manage all of the contingencies of that which is filmed; and, second, the way in which Herzog uses film to think through the shared creatureliness and excesses of (what we call) human and nonhuman forms of life. The former is a point that Herzog makes as Treadwell attempts to film himself moving through brush, camera in hand, ready for the perfect shot. As the camera rolls on a scene devoid of the human subject (figure 3), Herzog states that, “In his action movie mode, Treadwell probably did not realize that seemingly empty moments had a strange, secret beauty. Sometimes images themselves developed their own life, their own mysterious stardom.”
The visual transposition of these three moments (figures 1-3) – one of an animal, one of a human, one of plant life (all of these categories used only pragmatically) – provides us with the means of thinking through the way Herzog uses film to resituate the human in the material order. There is something of the blank stare in each image. As Pick writes,
The blank gaze – inscrutable and opaque – is one of Herzog’s signature gestures. He achieves this by momentarily disrupting narrative flow and fixing his subject in the gaze of the camera, usually in medium shot. The subject looks in the camera, but the gaze bypasses us without endorsing the communicability between spectator and subject. One can describe this gaze as “indifferent,” a term Herzog often uses to describe nature. (Pick 157)
I would suggest that this category of the blank stare or gaze can take on a more general logic. Between the animal, human, and vegetative, Herzog is attentive to the excess of contingency that cannot be contained by directorial intent, moments in which we are not concerned with a penetrative understanding of the secret worlds of any of the subjects. The “human” – and I position these images intentionally, with the human positioned between the animal and vegetative – is no longer effectively marked off from the rest of the material world, but is constituted and de-constituted by it: animal, vegetable, and human occupy a shared plane of creatureliness, caught up in processes of circulating forces, speeds, and intensities, zones of exchange that attest to their porosity, openness, and vulnerability.
I would like to go further by returning to a moment in my post on uncanny meat. This shared plane of creatureliness, of porosity and vulnerability, is most affectively pronounced towards the beginning of the film. For six seconds, Herzog disrupts the movement of the film with the still image of a photograph of bear 141’s carcass (figure 4) after it had been slain in “a bizarre meting out of interspecies justice” (Pick 170).
The photograph is shown while Sam Egli discusses how the bear “was all cut open” and “full of people.” As Pick notes, “This is the film’s only image intimating Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard’s violent fate” (Pick 170). What is interesting about Herzog’s photographic disruption is that it is unclear whether the photo was taken prior to or after the human remains were removed from the bear, producing, like Francis Bacon, a zone of indiscernibility as to where human and animal flesh begin and end. Furthermore, the placement of the photograph at the beginning of the film is intriguing. It ensures that the death of Treadwell and Huguenard, and how those deaths attest to both the potential edibility of the human body and what that edibility means for our relations to nonhuman creatures, will haunt the film even as it continually attempts to disavow that edibility and shared space.
This disavowal, I would suggest, is most obviously rehearsed in two moments: first, when Jewel Palovak is presented Timothy’s watch. She/we are told that the watch was still attached to Timothy’s dismembered arm but it is presented in a sterile evidence bag; second, when Herzog listens to the audio of Treadwell and Huguenard’s attack, where Herzog stands as the trembling threshold between affirmation and disavowal, the fact of Treadwell’s attack and the audience’s access to that attack. Furthermore, this disavowal is constantly rehearsed in both Herzog’s and his interviewees’s declarations that Treadwell had crossed an invisible border (a strange claim since he doesn’t “cross” one border but multiple ones, immersed as he was in a complex assemblage of affects and relations with not only bears but also foxes, Alaskan fireweed, swarms of insects, rainstorms, salmon migration patterns, etc.)
Whether Herzog rehearses this disavowal intentionally or not is of little importance. It’s clear from the number of conservative responses to the film that that disavowal serves an important social function. I would suggest, however, that the photographic disruption can be situated within the reading of Grizzly Man I have been developing here; that is, as an attempt to use film to think through the “human’s” (dis-)placement in the material world. When Herzog concludes the film by stating it is “not so much a look at wild nature, as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature” I do not take him to be speaking of an untouchable, exclusively human interiority (a markedly humanist reading of the film), but of a material and bodily fact about the nonhuman relations, forces, and affects which constitute, traverse, and de-constitute the so-called human. Astrida Neimanis, in a counter-narrative to the conservative critical responses discussed here, writes, “As Herzog’s film makes clear…becoming-animal is not a speculative fiction. Becoming-animal happens to us. We experience it; we live it” (Neimanis 279).
 I would suggest that this is not a far stretch. The video I posted at the beginning of this post is from an episode of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks titled “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman.” Herzog plays himself as a filmmaker documenting the Freeman family’s reaction to the election of a black president, and one can glimpse Herzog’s willingness to poke fun at himself and his tendency towards self-irony; a recognition that Herzog is, in fact, a character. After “tracking down the notoriously infamous Huey Freeman” and finding that Huey is not optimistic about Obama’s election, Herzog states, “I felt my sphincter clench and my scrotum contract in shock at his response” and soon after, when Huey claims we are witnessing the end of America, he states, “I felt a despair so terrible I briefly considered slitting my own wrists or bludgeoning myself about the head with a steel pipe or baseball bat. But I brought no blade, no pipe, no bat.” These are excellent dramatizations of Herzog’s general over the top narratological interventions in not only Grizzly Man but several of his so-called documentary films.