From the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have long been fascinated by the often contentious relationship that exists between Mankind and nature. Indeed, one simply has to look at director Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) for an early example of this, as it perfectly illustrates the give and take relationship we share with the natural world. Since that time, nature has often been mythologized on screen to such a degree that it is ascribed its own personality and motivations, and is alternately portrayed as a benevolent savior, as well as an antagonist of sorts. This depiction is not too far from the truth, really. Nature is at once our protector and our tormentor, providing the sustenance we require to live, while at the same time assaulting us with powerful storms and virulent diseases that serve as a reminder that our position as the dominant species on this planet is an illusion at best. This basic yet combative relationship is the central theme that lies at the heart of both Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007) and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), and is the subject of this installment of Cinematic Soulmates.
While both films are based on the lives of real people, one is a fictionalized account while the other is a documentary. Of course, considering Herzog’s reputation as a notorious prankster, there is always the possibility that Grizzly Man is not quite as straightforward an account as it seems, and the authenticity of the film is subject to debate. When taken at face value, however, the film is a fascinating and wholly absorbing portrait of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor turned devoted grizzly bear activist who spent the last 10 years of his life living with the grizzly bears in the Alaskan wilderness, until his life was tragically cut short when he was eaten by one of the very bears he swore to protect. The film is made up of interviews with Treadwell’s friends and family, as well as footage shot by Treadwell himself, as he made sure to bring a camera along with in order to document his crusade.
Right off the bat, we see that there are two sides to Timothy Treadwell, although it becomes obvious early on that Herzog is more interested in one more than the other. In many ways, Treadwell is the ultimate idealist, forsaking a comfortable life for the hardships of facing the elements and living alongside dangerous and unpredictable creatures. On the other hand, he was also a deeply disturbed individual who couldn’t handle living in polite society, and when the responsibilities of real life became too much for him, he retreated to the more primal world of nature in order to save both it and himself from the onslaught of civilization. Either way, Treadwell viewed himself as a sort of messiah or martyr for the grizzly bears. In his mind, he was nothing less than a golden-haired savior who would lay his life on the line for his big furry friends, and would often rant to the camera that he would “die for these animals” before letting anything happen to them.
It is this unhinged, messianic side of Treadwell that interests Herzog the most, and the film slowly turns into a chronicle of his own quest to try and understand why Treadwell would flee to such an obviously hostile and uncaring environment in order to save not just his life, but his very soul. It is a question that perplexes Herzog, for it is obvious that he does not hold the same affinity for nature as Treadwell does. In fact, at one point in the film, Herzog (who also acts as narrator) says, “And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” To him, nature is something that Mankind left behind long ago, and while we are peripherally a part of it, we do not truly understand it, nor are we welcome there. There is a gulf that separates from our primal ancestry, and when Treadwell crossed that gulf, he was stepping into a deadly and altogether indifferent world.
For Treadwell, however, nature was a place to shed his humanity, and leave all his man-made troubles behind. He felt as though he never truly fit in with the rest of society, and would often admit to having these feelings on camera. Herzog uncovered a wealth of footage in which Treadwell goes on and on about his failed relationships with women, or about how he couldn’t make it as an actor, or about all the difficulties he’s had with the Parks Service people who he sees as wanting to put a stop to his activism. Treadwell spent a long time crafting his persona in an effort to assimilate, even going so far as pretending to be Australian in order to appear more interesting and attractive. Indeed, Treadwell isn’t even his real name, but a stage name he adopted while struggling to become an actor. All of these lies and manipulations eventually took their toll on Treadwell, and he ended up looking for solace at the bottom of a bottle and at the end of a needle. Ultimately, Nature offered him a relief from all of that, as the bears he so loves are simple creatures that are not at all vindictive or manipulative or greedy. Instead, they are merely struggling to survive, and Treadwell admires that simplicity and wishes he could somehow be a part of that. In his mind, nature was the only real thing in the world, and that it would set him on the true path to a fulfilling and honest life. Unfortunately, he spent so much time deifying nature that he failed to see that he really didn’t belong there, and ultimately he was punished for his hubris.
In a similar vein, Sean Penn’s masterful and gripping Into the Wild tells the story of young Christopher McCandless (an electrifying performance by Emile Hirsch), a kindred spirit of sorts to Treadwell who also saw nature as a path to true salvation, but in the end is undone by it. McCandless is the son to a pair of wealthy socialites (played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, in what amount to a pair of rather thankless roles) who appear to be much more concerned with what their neighbors think than they are with their own kids. McCandless is a bit of a free spirit, and does not share his parents’ materialistic values. In fact, he can think of nothing more frightening than ending up as a vapid, greedy, soulless corporate lackey. Instead, he abandons all his worldly possessions and gives away his life savings, and sets off into the wild (we have a title!) on a search not only for himself, but for truth, beauty, and meaning. Ah, to be young again…
Along the way, McCandless meets a diverse group of friends who help him on his way, including a wandering hippie couple (played by Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), the somewhat shady owner of a harvesting company (Vince Vaughan), and an wise old retired man who withdrew from the world when his family was killed in a car accident (a powerful and heartbreaking performance by Hal Holbrook). While McCandless treasures these brief friendships, and all of them express a desire for him to stay, he is nonetheless determined continue on his journey deep into the Alaskan wilderness.
Much like Timothy Treadwell, McCandless sees nature as a sort of savior that will protect him from what he sees as a cruel and uncaring society, and he does not seem to fully understand that nature is every bit as indifferent. Unlike Treadwell, however, McCandless has no aspirations of protecting nature from the outside world. He enters the deep woods like a child, looking to take sustenance and shelter from the land without truly giving anything in return. He is retreating to the bosom of Mother Nature, because he thinks that this is the only way to avoid a banal and unsatisfying future, but he quickly learns that he is wholly unprepared for the hardships he is about to face.
Whereas Timothy Treadwell and the people with which he surrounded himself existed on the fringes of society, Christopher McCandless and his family were firmly ensconced in the center of it. Ultimately, this was the seed of McCandless’ undoing. It was Treadwell’s deep loneliness and outsider status that somewhat prepared him for the isolation of living in the wild. McCandless, on the other hand, had little more than his own hubris and a book about which flowers were safe to eat when he made his trek into the woods, and he soon discovered that nature was more than he could handle. More than that, he learned that life was only worth living when shared with others we cared about and who cared about us, and he set off back for home. Unfortunately, by then it was too late. With his path back to civilization cut off and available food sources rapidly dwindling, McCandless grew sloppy and ended up eating a poisonous plant. He then spent several agonizing weeks dying of starvation. Much like Timothy Treadwell, he was killed by the very thing he thought would save him.
We like to think that we are the masters of this world, but more and more lately we are reminded that our position at the top is far from assured. As the global climate changes and storms grow ever more extreme, we see that nature – indeed, the very Earth itself – is the one in charge, and if we are not careful, we may learn some harsh lessons similar to those learned by Christopher McCandless and Timothy Treadwell. Nature is neither a savior nor a protector, it is simply nature, and it does not care about our struggles for self or identity.