By Jeff Reichert
By all accounts,
2005 was the year Werner Herzog returned
to form. With three films in release (The
White Diamond and Wheel of Time
representing the two you may not have heard
about), his daring roadside rescue of a
car-crashed Joaquin Phoenix, and a bizarre
mid-interview shooting incident which our
man Werner gamely shrugged off as “not a
significant bullet,” this was easily his
most visible year in ages. The capper would
have been an Academy Award nomination for
his much ballyhooed Grizzly Man,
but, alas, twas not to be. Given that the
Academy tends to honor more challenging
artists once the shock of the newness of
their work has been safely enshrined behind
the canon’s glass walls, offering a belated
“thanks for all the memories” to work far
below personal gold standards, the timing
for Werner couldn’t have been better. An
Academy Award nomination for Grizzly
Man would have been validation for one
of the more consistently over- and underrated
(depending on which way the wind blows)
filmmakers of the Seventies.
But was this really the year where our Werner found himself? Or did everyone else just find him? It’s not as if the man stopped working after Fitzcarraldo. Though, one could argue that since he’s focused his practice largely on documentary filmmaking since the Eighties (with a narrative stopover here and there like the curious Where the Green Ants Dream or the regrettable Invincible), he might as well have given up the goat for all the attention given to the form in theaters in the media until recently. The truth is that there’s more Werner out there than most of us know, or will ever have access to, which somehow makes the critical kingmaking surrounding Grizzly Man feel more than a little misplaced, like a coming-out party 40 years late. Really, what is there in Grizzly Man that Werner didn’t accomplish in La Soufriere? Or in his films with Kinski?
For me, Grizzly Man belongs to a rather loosely defined category of films whose existence I don’t begrudge, but that don’t move me much beyond that (see also from 2005: Good Night, and Good Luck or Syriana). Though I’ve found things to like about all three of these titles, there’s nothing in them that strikes a chord—intellectually or otherwise—as strongly as my favorite films of the year: The New World or Kings and Queen or The Intruder. None bear the sense of a filmmaker gone completely out on a limb, which for Herzog was once his stock and trade (see The White Diamond for a hint of the more death-defying Werner of old). Werner here assumes a more ruminative mode as befitting his twisted elegy for Timothy Treadwell, pitting his philosophies of the natural order against the dead man’s. A tantalizing prospect, were it not so choreographed, inorganic, and of course, mediated by a Werner, who seems gone a bit Hollyweird of late.
Things come to a head in the film’s most discussed moment: Herzog listens to audio of Timothy and his girlfriend being devoured, and advises the tape’s keeper to destroy it. Of course, in a move designed to set the theory set a-drooling, the audience isn’t allowed to hear what Werner hears—raising questions of access, representation, documentary and all that. His pathos seems real, but if I believed for one second that Werner ever had intentions of doing anything but recommend the tape be destroyed, I might have been willing to make the leap with him. Instead, his calculation leaves his whole edifice laid bare, and me somewhat underfed. Grizzly Man is a well constructed, rigorously argued, and aesthetically complete film, to be sure. But from a man who once pushed a boat over a mountain to say underscore many of the same ideas, is this all we get?