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David Letterman must be feeling pretty bad. Included in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a clip of the movie’s subject, self-anointed “bear expert” Timothy Treadwell, as a guest on Late Show a few years back. “Is it gonna happen that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?” Letterman teasingly asked Treadwell, who devoted 13 summers to living among grizzlies in Alaska. Nervous laughter followed, but Dave’s joke would eventually become very, very unfunny.
Treadwell and a companion, Amie Huguenard, were mauled and, yes, eaten by one of the creatures they were allegedly protecting at Katmai National Park and Preserve in 2003, just before they were set to leave the Alaskan peninsula. What remained of their bodies—a rib cage, an arm, a “head with a little bit of backbone attached”—was discovered by the pilot who was to pick up Treadwell, as he’d been doing for years. Two bears were destroyed when authorities got to the scene, one of which ended up being eaten by other bears, the other “full of people, full of clothing.”
The bulk of Grizzly Man is composed of a selection from the approximately 100 hours of footage Treadwell filmed of his experiences living in the wild, including the opening scene, onto which Herzog superimposed Treadwell’s name and “1957– 2003.” It rather quickly becomes clear that Treadwell, despite his dedication and seeming expertise—he co-authored a book, Among Grizzlies, and lectured at schools while back in the civilized world—was little more than a loon with a tent.
Calling himself a “kind warrior” in his tapes, Treadwell often rattled off the dangers of being as close as he was to the grizzlies, but he never seemed to really believe anything could happen to him. He insisted that he presented himself as a strong but nonthreatening figure to the bears and would therefore be left alone. In several instances, we do see a bear take a swipe at Treadwell as he tries to touch it while cooing, “Hi, how are you? I love you!” We also see the animals back off when Treadwell admonishes, “Don’t do that!” But as Sam Egli, the helicopter pilot who assisted the cleanup crew, rationalizes, “The bears probably left him alone for so long because they thought that there was something wrong with him, like he was mentally retarded or something.”
Definitely something. Singsong was Treadwell’s dominant tone, whether he was telling a fox, “Thanks for being my friend,” confessing his past alcoholism, or musing about why women don’t usually stick around very long. (Maybe it’s because his bear fixation extended even to their shit: “I can feel the poop!” Treadwell says as he touches a giant pile from a favorite grizzly. “It just came out of her butt! It was inside her!”) But he could just as quickly turn angry, yelling at a bug for landing on a recently deceased fox’s eye (“Have some fucking respect!”) or at God for a drought (“Let’s have some rain, Jesus boy!”) or, in an extended rant, at the Park Service for, well, everything (“Fuck you, fucking Park Service!”). In a diary entry after an argument with an airline employee, Treadwell wrote about “how much I hate the people’s world”; reportedly, he also often behaved like a bear.
At this, Herzog, who narrates, intones, “I have seen this man before on a film set.” The director provides cool counterpoint to some of Treadwell’s beliefs, whether through his own comments or the opinions of his interviewees. The filmmaker especially disputes Treadwell’s views on the predatory nature of animals, but he also tries to explicate the bear-lover’s dangerous behavior. He interviews Treadwell’s parents, who mention their son’s failure to land the role of Woody on Cheers back when he was trying to become an actor. He talks to friends and one former (and sorta daffy) girlfriend, Jewel Palovak, who owns an audio recording of Treadwell and Huguenard’s deaths, made by Treadwell’s somehow running but still lens-capped camera. A headphoned Herzog listens to the tape in front of Palovak, then sternly tells her, “You must never listen to this.”
Throughout Grizzly Man, the goofiness of Treadwell, with his blond Prince Valiant haircut, repeatedly clashes with the horror of what happened to him, which makes watching the movie an uncomfortable, car-wreck-fascinating experience. Herzog’s ongoing, surprisingly sympathetic argument with his subject adds a philosophical depth missing in most talking-head documentaries. And though the director might overdo the talking-to-the-animals stuff a bit, Treadwell’s merry nuttiness grows sadder as his delusion becomes apparent—especially after a scene in which he watches poachers throw rocks at a bear makes it clear that he wasn’t there to “protect” the species at all.
Herzog, panning over an Alaskan landscape he describes as “in turmoil,” suggests that the area is “a metaphor for [Treadwell’s] soul” and that his story gives us insight into human nature. But Egli’s more dismissive view of Treadwell works, too: “He acted like he was working with people wearing bear costumes.”
The creators of The Aristocrats care about our furry friends as well, as the end credits boast: “No animals were fucked during the making of this film.” Yes, the statement is wrong, wrong, wrong—as is the rest of the movie—but you shouldn’t feel bad about laughing at anything here: It’s all just a joke.
The punch line of the joke is the film’s title, and if you’ve never heard it, it’s because the bit is considered insider gold that comedians traditionally use to entertain themselves. When director Paul Provenza and executive producer Penn Jillette were discussing the possibility of making a movie in which a bunch of comics tell the same joke, the Aristocrats gag seemed a natural: The beginning’s the same; the ending’s the same. And in between? A wide-open space in which the performer gets to be as filthy or offensive as he or she wishes.
Provenza recruited more than 100 comedians to tell their versions of the Aristocrats, which has been around since the days of vaudeville and more or less kicks off with, “A man walks into a talent agency and says, ‘Have I got a family act for you!’” Many of the contributors discuss what’s so great about the routine—primarily, the opportunity it provides for a jazzlike ad-lib—and in the process sometimes get a little personal. Carrie Fisher talks about her mother, “the golden-shower queen.” Sarah Silverman, completely selling her claim that she was actually part of the setup’s original family act, realizes during her otherwise wistful recollections that “Joe Franklin raped me.” (Yes, she’s kidding.) Andy Richter and Doug Stanhope tell the joke—complete with curse words and sexual deviance—to their cooing infant children.
Obviously, nothing is taboo here. “I think you can put people to death for what happens in the best versions of this joke,” says comic Jake Johannsen. Throughout its 92 minutes, The Aristocrats regales viewers with stories about shit-eating, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, and vomit, and Provenza’s quick editing makes it play like a wild-ride succession of stand-up bits that all kill. And frequently, there’s sophistication in the deliveries, if not the context. Two of the best come from Kevin Pollack, who tells the joke as Christopher Walken, and Billy the Mime, who demonstrates the one thing perhaps more shocking than a family circle-jerk around a dead grandma: that performers of his ilk can actually be funny.CP