Where the Wild Things Are

Fitzcarraldo is my best documentary. Grizzly Man is one of my best feature films.

—Werner Herzog

Perhaps only Werner Herzog, who once hauled a real ship over a real mountain to make a fiction about a man who wants to bring opera to the jungle, could make a nonfiction film about a man whose inner life was a Disney family movie and who met a death as sensational as a horror flick. Herzog has never bothered much with the boundaries between the real and the imagined, and all his films are wolfish appreciations of grand madmen at war with nature. But I fear that, in the case of Timothy Treadwell—an ardent environmentalist and bona fide fruitcake who lived unarmed among wild bears for 13 summers before being killed and eaten by a particularly cranky one—Herzog may have picked himself a dud.

From Aguirre, The Wrath of God to Fitzcarraldo and My Best Fiend(his fond and frank 1999 tribute to his longtime leading man, Klaus Kinski), Herzog has indulged his attraction to self-mythologizing rebels who court destruction from the very natural world they're trying to master. A passionate iconoclast whose worldview leans more toward Hobbes than Marx, Herzog is clear-eyed about the havoc such men cause, but he also identifies with them as the heroic, diabolical superstars of a world in which man and nature coexist uneasily at best. But while Grizzly Manis never less than a fascinating portrait of a troubled Peter Pan who couldn't function in human society and tried to remake the animal kingdom into his own private Hanna-Barbera cartoon, it fails to establish Treadwell as much more than a serious headcase, let alone a titanic figure.

Editing down more than 100 hours of highly professional video footage that Treadwell shot himself—up to and including the moment of his own demise—Herzog has put together a magnificent wildlife documentary, one of whose centerpieces is a bear fight that will ensure you never look at your teddy in quite the same way again. In much of the footage, the bears, on whom Treadwell bestows the kind of names my 7-year-old gives to the stuffed animals at the foot of her bed, lurk cautiously in the background while he soliloquizes up front. One sees their point: tricked out in aviator shades and knave-of-hearts blond hair, Treadwell has surfer-dude swagger to burn, and he prattles unstoppably in the falsetto rap-like cadences one finds so often in manic people as he alternately scolds the bears and tells the camera how he loves, loves, loves them. And Herzog has given him ample room to stake his claim as the bears' lone defender against a hostile world of poachers and Park Service officials—a curious posture for one camped in an animal sanctuary.

Treadwell and Palovak

Treadwell had his loyal supporters, many of them tree-hugging romantics like himself, as well as plenty of irritated detractors. One less-than-sympathetic Park Service employee interviewed by Herzog suggests that the bears gave Treadwell a wide berth because they had concluded he was retarded. An Aleut Indian curator with a Ph.D. from Harvard argues that by cuddling up to these extremely dangerous animals, Treadwell, far from protecting them, was crossing the line of respect humans must preserve between themselves and wild beasts. Herzog is too smart to deny any of this, or to skate over Treadwell's past forays into drink and drugs, or the lack of success with women and people in general that led him to sentimentalize the bears and their habitat. But he seems all too willing to buy into Treadwell's chest-thumping self-aggrandizement. For a formidable intellectual, Herzog can also be a shocking drama queen.

Treadwell's life and death could hardly be more inherently sensational, but Herzog jacks up the emotional register just the same. He can be coarse, as when he coaxes Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's former lover, friend and co-founder of the educational organization Grizzly People (and, not incidentally, the film's co-executive producer), into saying she feels like Treadwell's widow—an idea that clearly hadn't occurred to her before, but which she embraces with alarming alacrity. We also see him listening to the audio of Treadwell's death (the lens cap was never removed), then coyly pronouncing it too horrifying to include in the movie. Perhaps so—one of the men involved in the cleanup after the bear was shot tells Herzog that they hauled away “four garbage bags of people out of that bear”—yet it seems oddly unlike the director to play censor of life's unsightly underbelly. Nor was I ever convinced that Treadwell measured up to the long line of transcendently self-immolating madmen who are Herzog's artistic obsession. Behind many an avowed ecstatic there hides an angry, impotent little man who feels rejected by the world. Treadwell, for all his gooey encomia to his furry friends, could be petty and vicious about people. Herzog gives that side of him full play, but, having shown us one of Treadwell's paranoid on-camera rants against the Enemies of Bears, Herzog remarks, “His rage is incandescent, almost artistic.” Me, I saw a sad, overgrown schoolboy throwing a hissy fit.

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Richardson, looking very Grace Kelly

With Timothy Treadwell, Herzog may have repossessed one nut too many, but at least he's been around excess long enough to respect rather than abuse it. Which is more than can be said of the countless young filmmakers who currently prey on our desensitized palates with accelerating degrees of gussied-up extremity. I hope to God that Patrick McGrath's novel Asylum, about a bunch of repressed Brits manipulating the stuffing out of one another in a 1950s psychiatric hospital, is better than the shallowly competent exercise in nastiness that British director David Mackenzie and screenwriter Patrick Marber have made of it. McGrath also wrote the very good novel Spider, which David Cronenberg made into an equally good film. As for Mackenzie, his unaccountable 2003 Sundance hit Young Adam was notable chiefly for a horribly convincing performance by Ewan McGregor in some of the more repellent sex scenes in recent cinema.

There's more of that in Asylum, and it comes hitched to similarly repellent physical violence. Natasha Richardson, looking very Grace Kelly in a golden chignon made for carnal mussing, plays Stella, one of those neurasthenic neo-noir women who survive on booze, cigarettes and the promise of adultery with a cad. The alienated wife of an ambitious psychiatrist (Hugh Bonneville) who has snatched a top hospital job from under a long-standing deputy (Ian McKellen), Stella has no interests or ambitions of her own, hates other women and shows scant interest in their young son Charlie (Augustus Jeremiah Lewis). And still we are asked to root for her, especially when she falls for Edgar (Marton Csokas), a wild-eyed patient who's in for the sensationally brutal killing of his apparently unfaithful wife.

Signs, portents and parallels abound, mostly in the form of shattered glass, and pretty soon all aboard are merrily destroying themselves (and others) for no other reason than to goose our jaded reflexes. Sir Ian hams away enjoyably enough as the disgruntled colleague who channels his untapped libido into Machiavellian power plays, and Bonneville, who played the young John Bayley in Iris, is excellent in the thankless role of the eternal cuckold. But Richardson, who's almost always better onstage than she is onscreen, is stiff and wooden in that uniquely Redgrave way, and Csokas—in a role originally meant for Richardson's husband, Liam Neeson—has little to do but smolder, shag and, when all else fails, slug. Bookended by wittily surreal scenes of a hospital ball, the movie is shot with the same rigor and beauty that went into making Young Adam. But rigor and beauty are nothing without a point, and if the point of Asylum is that a little romantic obsession goes a long way, 100 years of cinema have made sure that we knew that already.


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