Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Grizzly Man" and Homophobia

I wrote a review of Grizzly Man, the Werner Herzog documentary about a peculiar man named Timothy Treadwell, who lived amongst and was eventually devoured by bears. It remains a popular post to this day, because a lot of people continue to search Google for "Timothy Treadwell death audio," and I rank relatively well for the term. (Treadwell did, in fact, record his own demise, but the audio itself is not heard in Herzog's film, prompting some curiosity, I suppose.)

The visitors who find my blog post are most likely disappointed, as I don't have the recording available for download, but some of them leave comments anyway. These remarks are uniformly ugly, reveling in both homophobia and an unhealthy delight in the man's demise. A sampling:

TIM TREDWELL what a asshole anybody who would put his hand over a pile of bear shit, and go hmmm hmmm good it came out of her. what a asshole what would he do if i took a shit in the woods i bet he would put his nose up to my trud and go sniff sniff hmmm hmmmm good he was very sick

This is one of the most tame and respectful comments (that weren't left by people I know, discussing the film thoughtfully, that is). It's still highly crude and takes some amount of pleasure in the fact that Treadwell was apparently a somewhat disturbed individual. Please note that the author (who is most likely a male) concocts out of whole cloth an elaborate scenario in which Treadwell smells the author's feces approvingly. Which really couldn't be more transparent. This guy is himself having a sexual fantasy about Timothy Treadwell, and then fantasizing about punishing Treadwell for it! (Also, is that last "good" a typo or a Freudian slip? You decide!)

This next one's more typical:

Tredwell was a dumbshit.
Started out as dumbshit.
Played with bearshit.
Acted like a dumbshit.
Ended up bearshit.

Is that really "fitting"? Did he deserve to be eaten for being naive and kind of silly? I mean, who's this Anonymous person to judge? Hasn't he or she ever done anything stupid, just because he or she felt like it?

I don't understand this next one at all, but it still seems pretty mean-spirited and vicious:

Tim was a bit of a nutter but I'm all for his reasons, behind being a nutter. It was a bit over rehursed for my liking and it would of been interesting to hear the audio of his last moments, to see if the love was still there?

Yes, you're right, Timothy probably was not as pleased with bears during his final moments as he had been the rest of his life. So what?

I like how this person tries to play off his or her bloodlust, as if it's caused by some external individual and not themselves. He or she wants to hear Treadwell die because he otherwise came off as rehearsed, not because the commenter him/herself is just grim and wants to hear a recording of another person dying. There's nothing inherently wrong with morbid curiosity, but it's so lame to act on it without admitting it, even to yourself.

Tim treadwell was def. homosexual

If you say so. He did have a girlfriend, and claimed to be heterosexual, and no man has ever, to my knowledge, claimed to have had a romantic relationship with him. And now he's dead, so it hardly even seems to matter in any way. But okay, Anonymous Weirdo, you got it. Tim Treadwell, gay. Feel better now? Your universe is set right again?

tredwell was a homo, no doubt

This commentor seconds that emotion! You two should form a club!

I think the bear that killed tredwell attacked my wife.

I just put this one in here because it's strange. Is it a joke? How would you know it's the same bear? Is his wife okay?

I loved this movie, it was an interesting psychological study of how someone will choose a cause to avoid or to explore their own issues, such as their sexuality. Maybe it was easier to face the bears than to face the world's reaction to what you really are. I think that we all knew from the first frame that this was the story of a gay man. It made it more interesting because that is probably a lot of what pushed him to do the things he did, and it made it sadder that he would rather face the bears than to face the reality of a cruel world.

This is all just so weird to me. The entire movie is not about Treadwell's homosexuality, and there is nothing at all that would tip you off to it being about his homosexuality in the "first frame."

Yes, there is a long sequence (in the middle) in which Treadwell openly discusses his sexual orientation, and Herzog implies that Treadwell's conflicted sense of his own desires may have been a factor in his decision to live in the wilderness with bears. But to say you love the movie, and then to say that it's really just all about a gay guy who can't face being gay, is just strange. There's a lot going on in this movie besides the gay thing.

For some context, I mentioned the homosexuality sequence once, briefly in my original review of the film. Because it's not the most central thing going on at all. Here's what I said:

At various intervals in the film, we hear Timothy discuss his intense anger at those who don't respect the environment, his sadness over being unable to maintain a healthy romantic relationship, his problems with crime and drugs, and even his questioning of his own sexuality.

That's it. It's a fairly long review and this is the only time I made mention of Treadwell's sexuality (and I didn't even come to the conclusion that he was gay. Just confused.) Clearly, my commenters feel otherwise, that the possibility the film's protagonist may be gay overshadows all else in terms of significance, which I can't help but find disheartening, kind of like the people who feel that the two most salient things to say about Barack Obama are that his middle name is Hussein and his pastor sometimes gets kind of agitated.

So here's the most recent comment on the Grizzly Man review. I have to admit, I find this one pretty disturbing.

One of the better documentaries I've seen and psychologists should study this. I think ALOT of people miss the point that this guy is not an environmentalist at all...but a complete social maladjust that had no business out there at all "protecting" these bears. He obviously had no respect or understanding for bears or nature. Herzog makes it clear from the beginning that this movie is not about bears or conservationalism but about this guy's issues with himself and escape from reality (and probably his own homosexuality)...I found it a masterpiece of irony by Herzog and actually laughed my ass off most of the time. I'm most annoyed that the Discovery channel version didn't portray him as the self-obsorbed, self-destructive, loser that he was. Watching the full grizzly man I really felt like i was watching a 12 year old girl the whole time. Since I couldn't hear the audio of him being mauled to death my only solace is to know that the bear that killed him got killed (which Treadwell would hate) and that Treadwells remains were removed and not digested into the bear-shit that we all know he loved--which would have validated his own existence to himself.

It starts out well enough...The person liked the movie. They correctly surmised that it was more a character study than a film about environmentalism (not that this is terribly hard to surmise, and they did it by using the tortured near-Bushism "conservationalism," but where it's due.)

I even agree with his point that Herzog's making a film about an eccentric man with some amount of social and personal dysfunction.

But then it just gets creepy. There are scenes in Grizzly Man that I suppose are kind of funny, but you'd have to be kind of a strange, maladjusted person yourself to "laugh [your] ass off" at the home movies of a troubled man who died. Then the comparison of Treadwell to a "12 year old girl," which is just weird. I can't decide if it's homophobic or misogynist (probably because it's both.)

Then the fact that this person has to take "solace" that we don't hear audio of Treadwell dying. What pleasure could possibly have been gained from such an act? Again, I'm not totally dismissing morbid curiosity. It may have satisfied some primal, reptilian urge to hear what it sounds like to get mauled...but the shattering disappointment of being denied this ritual causes this person to seek solace? Weird...

And that last part is just sick, reveling in the death of not just a man but also an animal, and hoping that Treadwell, even in death, would be disappointed and punished for his supposed transgression (which really only hurt himself and only put him and his girlfriend, an apparently willing participant, at risk.)

So this all leaves me with a question...Is Grizzly Man itself a mean-spirited or misogynist film? Or is it just too complex for most viewers, who misunderstand Herzog's intent and instead replace it with their own superficial, unconsciously bigoted hang-ups?

(And I do think it's unconscious. I'm not sure any of these commenters would say they hate gay people. They may not realize that they secretly hope for these people to be punished and hurt, and take joy in their suffering.)

I'm going to go with the second one. Herzog certainly does judge Treadwell, but his critique isn't moralistic or rooted in intolerance. He just disagrees with Treadwell's perspective on some fundamental levels, and believes he may have been mentally unbalanced. The viewers themselves are bringing their prejudices to the film, I believe, turning a beautifully-rendered, nuanced portrait of an idiosyncratic man into a gleefully cruel condemnation of a dumb queer. What a shame.


Anonymous said...

man, what anonymity does to a persons restraint and humanity should be the subject of a documentary.

Sharkbait said...

This is a very interesting post. I like that you've taken the time to craft thoughtful rebuttal to the mindless blathering of some of your commenters. I can totally relate to the disappointment—there have been many times where I've written something on my blog or in a forum about a topic I care about...and to watch it be pissed on by thoughtless and prejudiced a-holes is utterly depressing. What purpose does all the negativity serve? How can things change? How can we all get better?

Harry said...

Wow! I was at a loss to understand where the homosexuality angle came in until you validated it. By that I mean, that you confirmed there was a scene which indicated that Tredwell might have some homosexual tendencies. I saw the whole movie and missed that completely. I saw it simply as the study of a kind, gentle, apparently well liked soul who happened to have a complete disconnect with the danger of what he was doing.

Speaking of which, as a lawyer and a fan of the audition segments of American Idol, I never cease to be amazed at the infinite human capacity for self delusion. Being trained to look at problems objectively and advise people accordingly, I am constantly confronted with self delusional twisting of reality to suit what each individual hopes or wishes for. I guess that is why, for me, that's really what Herzog's film is about. It is just that unlike most of us Tim's ability to delude himself into thinking that grizzlys are really just big teddy bears had fatal consequences. Maybe he was trying to delude himself about his sexuality too, which I completely missed. In the final analysis, the fact that he might have been confused about his sexuality is only another layer of confusion for a guy who was apparently confused about a great many things. I don't think his sexuality, whatever it was (I thought he was straight until I read your post), led him to commune with the grizzlys, especially not with a girlfriend. It was just another indicator of the human capacity for self delusion, which is what led him to commune with the grizzlys and to bring along a woman for whom it would prove to be a fatal mistake. What happened to him was predictable but not deserved. As we say here in Florida, if you're gonna swim with gators, you're gonna get bit.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the movie. Being gay man myself... I had to deal with many of the issues that Treadwell obviously couldn't.

No straight man is aware of gay sex that goes on at truckstops and public restrooms. He was gay. No doubt. In my gay circle we'd call him a flaming queen. That's how gay he was.

I too saw this movie more about an obviously gay man dealing with (or escaping?) his sexuality the only way he knew how... to move to a barren wilderness of solitude.

The bears were an afterthought for him... a cover... a way to finance his escape.

It's a very sad movie because he chose to live in such solitude instead of simply coming out and living life as a gay man.

The woman that worked with him told of there not being a love at first sight but feeling more of a kindred spirit. All of his so called girl friends were either lesbians or fag hags. Guaranteed. Any gay man watching this movie knows where treadwell is coming from and has probably thought of a similar escape.

I'd rather come out to society than be eaten by a grizzly. It's sad that he chose the latter.

Slitheen23 said...

About Mr Treadwell's sexuality: we all can see, he was as camp as a row of scout tents...whether or not he lived the life of a gay man is irrelevant...he was clearly GAY (boy, some of your 'gaydars' need repairing!) I knew a man just like Timothy Treadwell. He was so effeminate it was unreal. He was brought up in a [morally judgemental] Irish catholic household...the only boy to his five or so sisters, which had a huge impact on his mannerisms and speech. My friend also had a powerful and scary matriarch for a mother. In some situations you simply never come out of the closet...and my friend never did. He married, had two kids, was a *wonderful* father and probably never had sex with a man in his life...but_he_was_gay. To anyone that knew him, that was a given. Timothy reminded me of this friend in so many ways. As others here are, I'm also of the mind that Timothy was escaping from hangups over his sexuality.

I also believe he was severely mentally unbalanced. Like many here have already noted, that dis-attachment he had with obvious danger was just scary. Let us not mistake it for bravery, as it bears (cough!) more relation to stupidity than bravery. Although he was not stupid either...he simply had that part of the brain that makes us fear for our lives missing.

He clearly did *nothing* to benefit the animals he seemed to love so much. The rant he had in the video at the rangers who had helped him for 13 seasons leaves one in no doubt how deluded this man really was. You can't help but feel he saw himself as some kind of champion for the bears. But he simply wasn't, and several notable conversationalists had major issues with what Tim was doing out there. The common consensus was that he did the animals far more harm than good. I agree.

All in all I found myself pitying this poor man from the start to the end. A sad story indeed. I feel even more sympathy for poor Amy though, as she came across as an if not unwitting participant in Tim's lifestyle, certainly a very gullible one. May they both rest in peace.

chris said...

You'll always have idiots posting comments in jest, with the intent of being funny, that end up coming off just plain offensive and blatantly racist. You'll always have unfunny people who think they're funny, you'll always have asshole bigots. But you can't blame people for making fun of the character Timothy Treadwell. Albeit my thoughts weren't as deep in the gutter as others whose comments you posted... Anyone living(alive OR post mordem) in the "limelight" is potential fodder for public ridicule. And Treadwells irratic, highly energetic personality... You can't help but wonder if Treadwells contempt for society was partially caused by confusion over his own sexual orientation. I don't claim to have the best "gaydar", but it didn't take long for the red flags to go up after meeting the flamboyant, prince valiant haircut wearing bear enthusiast. I might question Bear Gryllis's sexuality if he dressed like Zorro and wore scarves while he wrangled an alligator, then had multiple wardrobe changes, and always focused on having his "good side" filmed. "Grizzly Man" is a complex film. And a sad film. It tells the story of a man dejected by society, and his dysfunctional and irrational approach to escaping from his problems. Of course people are going to speculate on Treadwells sexuality, it's human nature. And opinions are like assholes, some aren't as pretty as others.

Anonymous said...

I actually just watched this film. I was aware of the incident, having read it in the paper, but put off seeing the movie.

I to agree that there is a definite possibility that his behavior stems from an extreme case of closeted sexual identity. ( To any Out Queer, his lengthy denial, and knowledge of anonymous sex areas is quite telling ). It is well documented that a life in the closet, burdened by a sense of shame, can lead to drug and alcohol abuse, as well as suicide. Herzog himself wondered aloud about an apparent death wish.

I was struck by the native interview. Had Tim reached out to the local tribe he might have begun to embrace his "two-spiritedness", and realized his empathy for animals was a direct result. His filming displayed a uninitiated shamanic tendency that with proper guidance might have had a different outcome.

Regardless, interfering with nature is misguided at best, the very point of wilderness reserves/parks is to provide space for wild life to be absent of human mingling. Everything he documented, and desired to show, could have been accomplished without such a blatant approach. The Letterman interview was downright chilling.

Thanks for the thoughtful posts and forum

Anonymous said...

I think it's likely he was gay but never came out, therefore never had a relationship with another man. I don't think that was why he was doing what he did though. I think he was either mentally ill or the alcohol and drug use had taken it's toll and messed his mind up so he couldn't cope with reality. Therefore he sought shelter in the wild with the bears. I think in his own mind he thought he was helping the bears. It's a shame one of his friends couldn't have talked some sense into him or alerted the park service as to his location so they could save him from himself.

Anonymous said...

I do not think that the biggest issue that Treadwell faced was sexual orientation.

Being a survivor of child sexual abuse and working with other survivors, this is what leaped out at me from the movie. In the film Treadwell displays all the characteristics of complex post traumatic stress disorder.

It is also extremely telling that his parents describe him as a normal kid but who was unable to function as an independent adult. The explanation that his father gives for this - being passed up for an acting role - is ludicrous. I have seen the same blind denial in parents of the survivors of incest and child sexual abuse (Capturing the Freemans is a public expose of such).

It's also possible that Treadwell was gay. However, being a closeted gay doesn't explain the rage and violation that Treadwell expresses.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! I have felt exactly the same way you do regarding people's comments that I hear. Seems like people cannot let go of TT's mental probs and move on with the film. I have noticed it is mostly men who react so negatively and I am wondering if some (I am not saying all) men are threatened by the film in some way. Could it be in response to TT's being who he is--which is not super masculine. He seems like a guy comfortable expressing many emotions and many men are socialized to express on emotion: anger. And I have noticed that the people who don't like the film, usu also express a lot of anger. Sorry to over generalize. I say some men and I will also include some women. Interesting question.

Anonymous said...

I am curious why there is so much interest in whether his is gay or not? Why does that even matter. Now I understand why so many men are intimidated by the film. "A real man would never be as "dumb and sissy" as TT. But a gay man out in nature all by his sweet self...."