Bamboozled by Herzog

I am glad to hear that Werner Herzog is up to his old tricks. I an eagerly anticipating his new documentary, Grizzly Man:

a fascinating character study of Timothy Treadwell, self-appointed
grizzly bear expert. For thirteen summers, the youthful Treadwell
camped in the Alaskan wilderness to observe and commune with grizzlies.
His final year there ended in tragedy when he and girlfriend Amie
Huguenard were attacked and completely devoured by an older, aggressive
bear. Most of the visuals for the film come from Treadwell’s own video
footage, shot during his last few excursions.

He is a mad Herzogian hero, to be sure:

He comes dangerously
close to the bears, touching them and swimming with them, all the while
convinced that his work as a naturalist and lobbyist is helping to
preserve their environment. Unfortunately, we soon come to learn that
what Treadwell is filming in the Alaskan wilds is less a nature
documentary than a kind of ongoing Crocodile Hunter episode with Treadwell styling himself as a great lone adventurer and
the only human capable of understanding the creatures around him. His
disturbed mental state becomes clearer through interviews and Herzog’s
own voiceover.

Treadwell was a failed actor and alcoholic, rescued in a sense
by the power and individualistic importance that such a reckless
undertaking gave him. The bears saved him from obscurity and addiction,
but his staying there, against the wishes of the park service, to play
out his own narcissistic fantasies and adamant death wish, was bound to
end in tragedy. His childlike love for the animals around him seems
genuine, as was his belief that the animal world, though admittedly
dangerous, was somehow more benevolent than that of humans. In reality,
nature is cruel and animals want to survive.

You may not know that Herzog has a tendency to fabricate in his
documentaries. All docs have some measure of manipulation, but I’m
talking about complete fabrication.So I had to smile when I read the following:

The most powerful scene in
the film comes when Herzog listens to a tape of the attack (the
camera’s lens cap was thankfully on during the recording). He agrees
that, at over six minutes, this is something that the audience should
not hear. 

Hmmm, does it not sound a bit too convenient that Treadwell turned the
sound recording on but left the lens cap on? It could happen, sure, but
Herzog’s docs are filled with these kinds of scenes of things we have
no way of proving. In Lessons of Darkness,
he shows the image of a young boy who just sits there and looks at the
camera. On voiceover Herzog tells us that the horrors he witnessed in
the Gulf War made him lose the ability to speak. And it rings
completely false, as does this Grizzly scene. I’ll bet that when Herzog
is supposedly listening to the tape of the killings, he is in fact
listening to nothing and grimacing for the camera.

Yes, I wrote my thesis on Herzog’s documentaries, and I never made up
my mind about the ethics involved with this kind of fabrication. And
apparently the Greencine correspondent who wrote the review above has some problems with the ethics as well:

Surprisingly, the film doesn’t deal with the ethical issue of
using Treadwell’s own footage to make a film that he, undeniably, would
hate.

Herzog’s docs have never been well-known enough to garner much
criticism for the ethical problems involved, but this one has a lot of
buzz at Sundance and now that docs are so popular these days, perhaps
they will come under greater scrutiny. Not that he’ll care, of course.
He freely admits to the manipulations and fabrications:

“By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verit

4 Responses to “Bamboozled by Herzog”

  1. Lisa
    January 31st, 2005 | 9:53 am

    I’ve heard about the bear man. Isuppose it doesn’t surprise me much that Herzog picked his story. It’s fiction living in reality – what better material for him to use? Wonder if next he’ll work in the guy who’s currently living with a wolf pack as part of a scientific experiment.

  2. Filmbrain
    February 1st, 2005 | 11:08 am

    Is your thesis online anywhere?

  3. cynthia rockwell
    February 1st, 2005 | 11:50 am

    nope, i never imagined it would be of interest to anyone. i might try to dig it out if you’re interested.

  4. Filmbrain
    February 1st, 2005 | 4:15 pm

    As a bit of a Herzog nut, I would love to read it.