Directed by Werner Herzog
Lions Gate Films
Death In The Wild
Timothy Treadwell felt he couldn’t make
it in the human world. Instead, he went to
live with grizzly bears, calling himself
At about the hour mark in Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary, Grizzly Man, the film’s complex subject, Timothy Treadwell, gushes to the camera, “I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends!” He pauses, then confides – again, to the camera – “I’m very, very troubled.”
It’d be easy to agree with that glib assessment. After all, Treadwell spent over a decade camping deep within Alaska’s Katmai National Park. He spent months in the wilderness, talking to his camera and to the 500-to-1000 pound grizzles he’d appointed himself to protect. He lived among them completely unguarded, capturing astounding footage beyond any nature documentary. “I think they’ve been misunderstood,” Treadwell said, and made it his calling to debunk the myth of grizzlies as lethal killing machines.
In the fall of 2003, at the end of his thirteenth summer in what he called “The Grizzly Maze,” Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed and eaten. Werner Herzog, the Bavarian director whose films Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, The Wrath of God explore madness and nature, became custodian of Treadwell’s footage – over 100 hours worth. In this raw material and in interviews with those who knew him, Herzog searches for the Timothy Treadwell lying somewhere beyond the mere facts of his life and death.
“Troubled” doesn’t begin to describe Treadwell, a former alcoholic and drug user who bargained with Mother Nature for his redemption. “I was troubled. I drank a lot,” he tells Iris, a fox confidant. When 12-step programs and quitting cold turkey failed, he found another option: “I promised the bears that if I would look over them, would they please help me become a better person.”
Apparently it worked. Treadwell stopped drinking, and his work with Grizzly People, a wilderness preservation group he founded, inspired and amazed. Even Herzog, who maintains a skeptical distance throughout the film, says, “I don’t believe he saved the bears as much as the bears saved him.”
But it’s hard to ignore that his redemption ultimately killed him. Sam Egli, a helicopter pilot, remarks that Treadwell acted “like he was working with people wearing bear costumes... the bears probably thought there was something wrong with him, that he was mentally retarded.” Herzog, too, disputes Treadwell’s Disneyfied vision of nature, offering, “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.” Treadwell thought he found a soul in nature; Herzog has no such delusions.
The more time he spent with the bears, the more Treadwell saw himself as one of them. In his diary he wrote how much he hated the “People’s World,” and told friends, “If I don’t come back, it’s what I want.” His mission consumed him; imagined poachers drove him to fits of paranoia. He railed against the Park Service, refusing to move camp or maintain a safe distance from the bears. His mantra, “I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals, I will die for these animals,” began to sound less like a declaration of will and more like a death wish.
Finally, though, Herzog avoids armchair psychoanalysis. He doesn’t agree with Treadwell’s dubious claims to environmental stewardship, but respects him as an artist who reinvented himself as someone wholly original. Herzog – and you, and I – can empathize with Treadwell, or we can dismiss him as a fool. We can’t deny, though, that he had a dream for which he was willing to live and die.
A line from Treadwell’s final letter reads, “My transformation complete – a fully accepted wild animal – brother to these bears. I run free among them – with absolute love and respect for all the animals.” It’s that dream, with its outsized hope and absurdity, in its naiveté and its sadness, in its essential humanity, that Grizzly Man respects.
Directed by Jean-Xavier De Lestrade
On the night of December 9, 2001, the Durham, North Carolina, police department received a frantic phone call from novelist Michael Peterson. Breathlessly, near-hysterically, he tells the operator that his wife has fallen down the stairs. The operator asks if she is still breathing; Peterson answers yes, but says there’s blood everywhere and they need to hurry. When paramedics arrive minutes later, Kathleen Peterson is already dead. When police find several lacerations on her head, Michael Peterson, his clothing spattered with his wife’s blood, is arrested for murder.
What followed was one of most sensational murder trials in recent memory, and director Jean-Xavier De Lestrade had remarkable access to its participants. His film, a 6-hour documentary that originally aired on the Sundance Channel, mirrors the justice system’s attempt to reach judgment. The camera is constantly probing the suspect and his family, his prosecutors and defense. At the center, Peterson, a complex, charming enigma, could be your father. He could also be a murderer. As the film progresses, we learn more about him – his first wife also died from a fall; he had homosexual liaisons that Kathleen may or may not have known about – but we seem to know him less. As evidence for and against him stacks up, the man himself remains opaque.
Where the American legal system finally pronounces judgment on Michael Peterson, The Stairvase does not. It asks wider questions about the nature of American justice, wealth, and tolerance, and by chronicling one family’s experience, leaves the answers up to us.
Jamie Bell, Bill Pullman, & Michael Angarano
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Written by Lars von Trier
It’s interesting to realize Lars von Trier has never set foot in America. The director’s recent work, the Brechtian allegory Dogville and its upcoming sequel, Manderlay, especially, has taken place in a dreamscape “America,” where the gap between reality and idealistic rhetoric yawns even vaster than in the country we know. In its exaggeration it, like all satire, reveals the absurdity of a reality we take for granted.
In Dear Wendy, Von Trier’s penchant for sparse sets and affected dialogue has been tempered by director Thomas Vinterberg, co-founder of the Dogme ‘95 movement. The film, a story of love’s first blossom between a boy and his gun, follows The Dandies, a sort of absinthe-and-velvet version of the Trenchcoat Mafia, led by Dick Dandelion (Jamie Bell), as they play out a brand of “pacifism with guns,” worshipping the power of firearms, but vowing never to use them to kill (which they euphemistically dub “loving”). They stage trick-shot competitions, match famous gunmen to their weapons of choice, and write sonnets to their firearms. It’s all very dandyish, drama club with a weapons cache.
All that changes when The Dandies are joined by Sebastian (Danso Cole), a former gang member in trouble for shooting a rival. (The town sheriff, ironically, sets Sebastian up with Dick Dandelion, figuring him for a good influence.) As the only member who’s ever fired a gun in anger, he disrupts The Dandies’ carefully maintained illusion. The group’s good intentions slowly dissolve as they confront reality, and von Trier realizes there’s only one way this story can end.
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
Directed by Robert Greenwald
IF WAL-MART WERE ITS OWN ECONOMY, it would rank 20th in the world, just ahead of Colombia and rapidly closing on the Ukraine. Last year the company did $285 billion in sales as the largest private employer in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. It also employs its own armed forces, including an entire fleet of refurbished Los Angeles-class attack submarines.
Ha ha. No, I kid. Unlike arch-rival Scientology, Wal-Mart does not have a navy. (The Walton family has an underground bunker worthy of a James Bond villain, though.) They do, however, import billions ($15 billion, more than Russia or the UK) of dollars worth of Chinese merchandise each year, with a heavy markup for American consumers. Simultaneously, the company has violated labor laws by hiring illegal immigrants; flouted environmental laws, racking up millions in fines; and broken every attempt to unionize its poorly-paid workers.
Those facts – and they are facts – make it difficult to talk about Wal-Mart in any reasonable, calm manner. Debates about the retail giant’s business practices sound a bit like the Sudetenland Crisis, with activists shouting, “Wal-Mart is HITLER!” Rushing to Wal-Mart’s defense, libertarians and die-hard capitalists reply, “But Hitler is good!” And so back and forth we go. (I tease you, Wal-Mart defenders. *wink* (But you love Hitler.))
Robert Greenwald’s new documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, isn’t as strident as all that. With carefully-chosen media-bites and interviews with Wal-Mart workers, Greenwald paints an unflattering picture of The Wal-Mart Nation. It may not yet be marching into Poland, but it’s not reading bedtime stories to puppy-dogs, either.