J. Robert Parks weighs in again, this time on three beastly films:
It’s a summer for penguins at the movie theater. The documentary March of the Penguins has become one of the biggest arthouse hits in recent years, so much so that its studio is rolling it out into almost 2000 theaters this weekend, hoping to push it into blockbuster territory. Furthermore, almost every other day someone stops me on the street and asks me if I’ve seen the film and what I think about it. I respond that I like it but don’t quite understand its appeal–it’s really just a National Geographic special with great production values and a Morgan Freeman narration.
Things came into focus for me, however, a couple weeks ago when I saw two other animal movies: Carroll Ballard’s live-action Duma about a boy bonding with a pet cheetah, and Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man. The latter is by far the best of the three films, and its powerful style casts an interesting light on the other animal movies.
Grizzly Man focuses on the life of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers living among the grizzly bears in the wilderness of Alaska. Treadwell gained some notoriety from his escapades (he even appeared on Letterman once) and tried to use his platform to speak out against those (poachers, energy corporations, the Park Service) whom he thought were trying to harm “his” bears. Treadwell was killed by a bear in the fall of 2003. Herzog’s feature films and documentaries have often explored men on the edge of civilization, so the story of Treadwell had immediate appeal. What set this story apart for Herzog, though, was the video footage that Treadwell himself had shot over the years and which makes up the core of Grizzly Man.
Take, for example, the movie’s opening scene. It’s a spectacular static shot of Treadwell talking to the camera while two huge bears stand off in the distance quietly eating. The footage goes on for what seems like an eternity, and since Treadwell has his back to the bears, there’s a growing tension that the bears might sneak up on him. The shot also has a formal beauty that echoes March of the Penguins. The video nature of Treadwell’s footage can’t match the gorgeous film of March, but the Alaskan landscape and the bears themselves have an awesome majesty that reminded me of the Antarctic ice floes.
Herzog himself comments on those formal qualities as the documentary continues, and he particularly highlights the accidental moments–the brief snatches of video when Treadwell left the camera rolling on a bear eating or a fox running or some plants waving in the breeze. Lest you think Grizzly Man is a movie just for cinephiles, Herzog makes it accessible to those who aren’t, explaining how this “magic of cinema” works. And his idea of a camera as confessional is a thought-provoking meditation on our ideas of reality, personality, and spirituality. Herzog also uses these confessional moments where Treadwell talks to the camera to further build the portrait of Treadwell. Herzog rounds that out by incorporating interviews with Treadwell’s associates, parents, and girlfriends. Our initial impression of him–as an earnest, animal-loving environmentalist–is slowly refined over the course of the film, as we see his more ambitious and also his more paranoid sides. For example, a long curse-filled rant by Treadwell against the Park Service casts earlier moments into sharp relief. Herzog even explores what Treadwell left out–why is there so little footage of Treadwell’s girlfriend who spent two summers with him and died with him?
Herzog’s greatest accomplishment, though, is how he uses the documentary to comment on man’s relationship to the animal world. As the movie goes on, Herzog becomes more and more explicit about his own viewpoint. His argument, almost like an essay film, is constructed slowly but powerfully. He deploys images and interviews to make the case that Treadwell, in seeking to leave his humanness behind, “crossed an invisible boundary.” He sympathizes with Treadwell but seems him as unfortunately naive. Herzog is also explicit in seeing the world of nature not as one of harmony but as one of chaos and murder.
In that respect, he couldn’t be further from the worldview of March of the Penguins, which opens with the explicit statement (courtesy of Freeman’s narration) that the film is a love story. The same is true for Duma, which imagines a 12-year-old boy adopting a baby cheetah and raising it to be his best friend. Both of those obviously more sentimental movies have their admirable qualities. Duma doesn’t capture the same magic Ballard conjured in The Black Stallion or Fly Away Home, but his command of his trained cheetahs is stunning, and there might not be a more beautiful sight in nature than a cheetah running at full speed. March of the Penguins is even more beautiful, as director Luc Jacquet and his team of cameramen film absolutely spectacular footage of penguins raising their chicks.
Yet, once you’ve seen Grizzly Man, those other two movies seem flimsy and naive. Even if you don’t agree with Herzog’s perspective, the rigor he brings to the argument is invigorating and challenging. He interrogates the close-ups of bears that Treadwell shot, asking whether there’s any kinship there or if it’s just “the awful indifference of nature.”
Duma never questions the wisdom of raising a baby cheetah but, almost like a Disney cartoon, sees a natural bond between man and beast. The voiceover in March of the Penguins is sweet and reassuring, until you actually ask yourself, as Herzog would, whether our understanding of the penguins (and bears and cheetahs) is simply a projection of how we wish the world was instead of a document of how it actually is.
Grizzly Man – 4.5 stars
March of the Penguins – 3.5 stars
Duma – 2.5 stars