“Of course he won’t hurt me! I’m wearing bear-repellent glasses!”

Grizzly Man
dir. Herzog
Opens Fri Aug 12
Various Theaters

Unlike Bat Boy and other tabloid characters whose very names merge the disparate worlds of human and animal, the story behind Grizzly Man is very, very real. For 13 straight summers, Timothy Treadwell really did go up and camp out in Alaska's Grizzly Maze, home to thousands of burly, wild grizzly bears. At close range, Treadwell really did coo baby talk at these vicious, hungry creatures, and he really did stroke their fur with his bare hands. And in October of 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, really were killed and eaten by a grizzly bear.

For Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog dug deep into more than 100 hours of film footage that Treadwell shot while living among the bears. There, Herzog found a man who poses in front of tripod setups, doing multiple takes of everything from "impromptu" lectures about poachers to shots of himself bounding through the woods. Treadwell was clearly hoping to make a Discovery Channel-style movie of his own, with himself as the googly-voiced host. His "performance" is frequently hilarious, occasionally profound, and sometimes terrifying. Swerving between TV personality mode and erratic memoirist, he waxes ecstatic about his alcoholism, his troubles with women, and delivers an expletive-charged rant against the Alaskan State Parks Bureau.

Herzog doesn't have the option of sentiment for Treadwell—the man seems bent on portraying himself as a sad, self-serving, delusional hypocrite who selfishly battled demons through total immersion into a place where humans just shouldn't be. Through reflective narration in his lovable German accent, Herzog is quick to criticize Treadwell's breach of what he sees as a clear divide between man and nature, and yet the viewer also senses a kinship between the two men. Treadwell was a filmmaker, too, after all, one who used his camera as a searchlight, struggling to find himself in a den of angst, substance abuse, and grizzly bears. No stranger to art as self-reflection, Herzog's awareness of Treadwell's plight makes his film much more than a story about a man who got eaten by a bear. It makes it a documentary classic.