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Werner Herzog & the CMV

Image from Grizzly Man
Image from Grizzly Man

Anyone who makes nature films for a living will tell you that it’s impossible to get funding without a CMV. It’s a law of the wild: a nature film must feature a CMV. Slugs are not CMVs. Seagulls are not CMVs. Lions are CMVs; whales are too. Grizzly bears are the apogee of CMVs. They are, undoubtedly, Charismatic Major Vertebrates.

Herzog’s always made films about CMVs. Klaus Kinski was a Charismatic Major Vertebrate, as were the men he portrayed. Kinski served as the holy madman so key to Herzog’s Nitzchean view of the universe, a universe he explains in Grizzly Man as consisting of “chaos, hostility, and murder.” Madness, deranged possession, and obsession are prisms Herzog regards as critical for any revealing study of the world’s functions. When he wanted to contrast man’s puny determination against the vastness of Manichean nature, Herzog featured CMVs: Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, the silent supermen of Red Adair’s oil well fire-fighters in the documentary Lessons of Darkness. When Herzog studed the grinding wheels of man’s inhumanity to man (and fate’s indifference) he cast disturbed Beta-male seers, like his unbalanced mascot Bruno S., star of Strozek, A Ballad and Every Man For Himself and God Against All.

In Grizzly Man, Herzog has both. He has the CMVs and the Beta-fool just waiting, begging, to be squashed. Timothy Treadwell, the fool in question, spent thirteen summers living among and video-taping grizzly bears in Alaska. Suffice to say, no one has ever seen what he saw. In his thirteenth summer, while camped in the midst of a tangled grizzly bear-infested forest, Treadwell and his girlfriend were eaten by a bear. A big ol’ bear.

Grizzly Man consists of Treadwell’s footage of the bears and himself, and several astonishingly conventional, self-serving, false-seeming interviews with Treadwell’s friends and former lovers. For decades Herzog’s documentaries have been better than his features. Herzog’s maddening sense of time, his refusal to create dramatic climaxes, his tolerance for Kinski’s horseshit, and his arrogance about the sublimity of his own filmmaking made most of his later work unwatchable. Yet all those infuriating aspects made his documentaries consistently compelling (those and the absence of Kinski). Herzog, in his dogged, hilariously Germanic and occasionally numb-skulled methodology, always sought mystery. His best documentaries—Fata Morgana and The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner—remain arresting because Herzog never explained anything. Fata is a montage of silent shots of African wildlife and landscapes. Ecstasy follows the world’s greatest ski-jumper, who flies through the air not from an excess of courage, but because everything else in life terrifies him so he as to jump to escape it. In both films, Herzog never tells us how to feel about what we see.

Sadly, this is no longer so. Herzog, shorn of a hefty percentage of his arrogance, seems to have entered his anecdotage. The White Diamond, another of his recent documentaries, proved extraordinary because, for once, the feelings of another human being actually mattered to Herzog. He had, either through age or experience or a loss of energy, experienced compassion. The White Diamond, which (compassionately) follows a loony British scientist as he flies his home-made ethereal dirigible over the rain forest of South America, achieves that Herzogian ideal of mystery presented in its depth yet never explained. Herzog voice-overs (in that pedantic, over-bearing tone of his) to explain technical details, or the passage of time or events that precede the filmed story. He lets the beauty of the jungle, of thousands of wheeling starlings, of romantically engineered technology and of a terrifyingly majestic waterfall bear the emotions of the film. Herzog leaves us alone to experience these phenomena. The opposite occurs in Grizzly Man. Herzog never shuts up. For the first time, his pronouncements seem silly, pretentious and obvious. We helicopter over an tumbled, endless, blue/green/clear/white icefall at the head of a glacier. In the distance, immense snow-capped mountains. Overhead, a merciless blue sky. As we glide like a dreamer, Herzog tells us that the unearthly landscape seems like a metaphor for Timothy Treadwell’s tortured soul. Uh, no Scheiße, dude. It, like, really really does.

And Treadwell is tortured. A former drug addict, alcoholic and failed actor, he apparently went into bear country seeking peace. That he found his niche and his fate does not seem to have brought him much satori. Sadly, after 90 minutes of his monologues to the camera—many delivered within ten feet of a 1500-lb bear while standing in the most beautiful landscapes—Treadwell’s looniness doesn’t feature much poetry either. Treadwell seems buggy in precisely the way a guy who has lived alone in the woods—and had some issues to start with—might sound. His insights are not all that insightful and his faux-naïve narrations prove intensely irritating. Despite learning to live with grizzly bears, which requires either no fear of death or a devout wish for it or both, Treadwell’s footage of himself reveals only that wherever you go (no matter what), there you are.

That Herzog cannot see the limitations of Treadwell as a main character is disconcerting. Herzog dresses up Treadwell’s self-obsession (what else is a guy living alone in the grizzly wilderness going to be obsessed with, save how long his canned tuna will hold out?) with an ongoing lecture on film theory. Herzog tells us that some of the most haunting frames in Treadwell’s hundred-hour video oeuvre are accidental. Herzog claims that Treadwell did not know when he had captured some perfect non-moment of leaves moving in the wind. Yet Herzog’s deconstruction of Treadwell’s intentions serves Herzog’s ends as a narrative-constructor far more than it serves me as an audience member. Herzog later tells us that – as Treadwell spirals off into a self-loathing rant –Treadwell now wanted to be an actor in his own film, not a director. Again, how does Werner know and how does it advance my understanding of Treadwell’s life to think in those terms?

My memory is that the film is about ¼ grizzlies and ¾ Treadwell. And after about ten minutes, every time Treadwell started talking (with Herzog stepping in to explain), all I wanted was more bears! The environmentalists in Alaska sort of liked Treadwell but didn’t know what to make of him. The hard-core Alaskans thought he was a New Age dipshit who got what he deserved. An Aleut museum-curator thought he violated everything his people feel the bears represent (though Herzog did not ask the obvious question: well, what do the bears represent to your people? Nor did Werner ask the less obvious but more compelling question: why does your people’s view of the bear have moral primacy over Treadwell’s?). Treadwell’s unbearable, self-congratulatory former girlfriends thought he was a saint, a holy fool, a man who became larger than life because of his (self-serving) love for the bears.

In the end, who cares? None of these interpretations of Treadwell are compelling because the guy was not so compelling himself. What Treadwell proved himself to be, beyond any doubt or agenda, was the greatest cinematographer of bears who ever walked the earth. He earned that position because he did things no one in his right mind would do to achieve his footage. That makes Treadwell a hero. And it should make him especially heroic to Herzog, a guy who risked his life to sneak onto an about-to-blow volcanic island to film residents who refused to leave. Herzog always presented himself as someone who would do anything to get the shot. When confronted with a guy who did much more than Herzog ever has, Herzog’s response is to focus on the guy’s idiosyncrasies at the expense of the amazing footage. Treadwell as an artist is so much less interesting than his art. Why does Herzog have his priorities so skewed?

When Herzog shuts the face and lets Treadwell’s footage do the talking, Grizzly Man makes it clear that Treadwell did not die in vain. And that whatever his faults as a human being or as a monologist, he was every bit as equipped as Herzog to recognize and record transcendence. Given that he shot a hundred hours, there must be so much more extraordinary bear footage than Herzog shares. The mystery that has so driven Herzog in his earlier documentaries emerges watching these behemoths gambol in the meadow or dive for salmon or trying to tear one another a new one. The sequence that justifies the price of admission is a three-minute one-shot unbroken take of two grizzlies duking it out for the right to mate with the one local female. Herzog lets the fight stand on its own, wisely. But that restraint vanishes when he wastes five minutes of my life showing Treadwell rhapsodizing over a pile of fresh bear scat. Herzog diminishes Treadwell, showing him in his most exposed and prurient moments.

This contrasts with a weird delicacy on Herzog’s part. While never shirking from showing Treadwell at his nuttiest (in footage than even a narcissist like Treadwell must have assumed would never be seen), Herzog refuses to share the final recorded moments of Treadwell’s life; the sounds of him and his girlfriend being consumed. If we’re going to pander to my prurient instincts, I’d much rather hear that than Treadwell’s paean to bear shit. And by not sharing the horror, Herzog diminishes the price Treadwell paid for his footage and thus the moral as well as artistic worth of it.

What is the root of this delicacy? It appears to be an unholy alliance Herzog, of necessity, entered into with a former girlfriend of Treadwell’s who now controls his estate and access to his film. She gets far more screen time and deference from Herzog than she deserves. He appears to swallow her nonsense whole, and take her world-view as legitimate. Back in the day, Herzog would have ignored her, or shot in her a way that made her idiocy apparent. Here he seems her ally.

The only time the old Herzog style appears in when he gives an Alaskan coroner free reign to describe Treadwell’s death. This guy is so weird, so at one with the telling, such a compelling loony in his own right, that he harkens not to Herzog’s best documentaries, but to those of Errol Morris.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

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