Friday, February 5, 2010

Grizzly Man (2005) & Survivor

In a rare bit of synchronicity, I finally caught up with Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man about a month and a half ago, just as the nineteenth season of Survivor was wrapping itself up. This was one of the best seasons that show has ever put out, and I must ramp up my crusade to get people to watch it. Viewing Grizzly Man for the first time, I was bemused by how much the lauded documentary has in common with the television show that some pundits say destroyed the medium.

the grizzly man in his elements

Most of the footage in Grizzly Man is of the 'found' variety, recovered from the tapes left behind by preservationist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell, having spent thirteen consecutive summers camping in the Katmai National Park amongst the native grizzly bear population, was ultimately killed and eaten in October of 2003. Herzog cuts Treadwell's tapes together into an essay that begins as something resembling the nature documentary Treadwell himself might've one day assembled but quickly transforms into a parodic eulogy to a crazy weirdo who essentially feeds himself to the bears in order to escape human society.

The parts of the film that aren't shot by Treadwell involve testimonials from the people that knew him closely, reconstructing both his life and the circumstances behind his grizzly grisly death. Delving into what made him the man he became, Herzog doesn't shy away from Treadwell's episodes with drug addiction, his failed career as an actor (allegedly he was a runner-up for Woody Harrelson's role on Cheers) or his inability to form many true friendships outside of the preservationist community.

One of the fundamental mysteries of Treadwell's existence is the extent to which he was retreating into nature because he loved the bears so much or rather because he felt cast out of the humanity into which he was born. Herzog edits down the tapes and tapes of monologues left behind so to show Treadwell repeatedly proclaiming his love for the animals (the bears, a fox, a dead bee that turns out to have been merely dozing) in a progression to the point where it almost sounds like Treadwell is trying to convince himself as well as his audience. Treadwell often appears to forget that he's recording a monologue for a nature documentary and devolves into manic anger (this is hammered home by Herzog's use of multiple takes of the same speeches). Treadwell's mood swings are now the stuff of legend.

the four types of survivors

There are four categories into which any Survivor contestant can be reasonably placed:

1.) The Walkabout
My favorite Walkabout is Jessica "Sugar" Kiper from Gabon (and not just because she's cute). Sugar claimed to have gone on the show to reconcile herself to the recent loss of her father and spent several consecutive trips to Exile Island weeping in a hammock. The Walkabout is on Survivor because it's a (relatively) easy way to get an all-expense paid trip to an exotic location with the opportunity to live off the land away from civilization. As a bonus, there's little actual risk because of the medical team hanging around in the bushes (although it's worth pointing out that the frequency with which we see that medical team called in can be pretty scary).

2.) The Challenged Self
Either The Challenged Self or The Fame Whore is the most common type of survivor. The Challenged Self, for one reason or another, has entered the game because he or she needs to prove they can win it. Russell Hantz is probably the most honest (in confessional) example of this we've seen. He stated outright in the first episode of season nineteen that he was just here to show everyone he can play Survivor better than anyone else (and he was almost right).

These survivors often use phrases like "I have something to prove" or "I just wanted to see if I could make it". Their motives can be financial (put your kids in college, buy your wife that salon she's always dreamed of, put yourself through college) or self-interested. The Challenged Self is playing Survivor because he thinks he can win the game. They've seen Survivor before and thought, "I could beat those assholes." The Challenged Self is here to compete.

Take Bob Crowley, for example: a high school physics teacher who just wanted money for his kids' tuition. He was beloved on and off the island. The only time he double-crossed another survivor, he quickly repented for his cruelty (and everyone bought it, including me). His decency carried him a long way on the show; his popularity among viewers won him an extra hundred grand in the Sprint-sponsored fan-favorite contest that ends each season (this in addition to winning the million dollar grand prize).

3.) The Fame Whore
You go on the reality show that started it all, you get a lifetime of endorsement deals, shopping mall appearances, ten-dollar signed glossies and Playboy spreads.

Jerri Manthey owned the Fame Whore title, tearing up the show in the second season's Australian Outback. Manthey's inevitable expulsion was one of the series' great moments not because of the vote itself but because everyone had grown to hate her so much. If Survivor created reality television, Manthey created the "reality star". She's like The Beatles to pop music: Snooki and the Situation, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and all the rest of them owe their careers to Jerri Manthey and her sensationalist "reality" performance art. (This may or may not be a good thing; it's certainly culturally relevant.)

I should point out that on occasion the fame whore isn't all that bad. In the sixteenth season, the initial tribes were composed of "Fans vs. Favorites", one an all-star tribe of former players and the other all die hard Survivor fans. A fair number of Survivor contestants are just there because they love the show and want to be a part of it.

4.) The Crazy
When the Survivor casting team lands a great Crazy, it's beautiful. Look at Coach from Tocantins. Here's a pathological liar who self-identifies as an Alpha Male but fails spectacularly at anything physical. He's a man who goes by "Coach" but was fired from his job as a women's soccer coach because he lied to his superiors about going on Survivor, telling them he was only going to be gone a week. Coach practices an ancient Martial art called "Chong Ran", claiming that "if you do a Google search for it you won't find it; it's only passed down verbally." When he made it to the "Loved Ones" episode, the loved one he chose to visit him halfway around the world was ... his assistant coach.

The Crazy is so thrilling to watch; this is also where I begin to feel slightly dirty about the show. The Fame Whores know what they're getting themselves into, but with The Crazy it's impossible to tell. Regardless, a good Crazy usually makes it really deep into the game (Coach came in fifth, Samoa's Shambo came in sixth out of a larger, twenty-player pool) and even as this is because their competitors don't consider them a real threat, I do find it hard to feel sorry for the Crazies. The thing with a Survivor Crazy is not that we think they're insane so much as they seem to be operating on some alternate plane of existence. We just can't understand what's going on in their heads.

so why should anyone care?

Watching Grizzly Man at the height of one of Survivor's finest seasons, the comparison was easy.

Here's the thing: Timothy Treadwell would've fit into all four of those categories. He was deeply invested in forging a commune with nature (walkabout); he believed that he could successfully integrate into Grizzly Bear society (challenged self); he lived his life in front of a camera after failing to make it as an actor (fame whore); finally, he was kind of nuts (crazy).

If Treadwell had somehow made it onto Survivor, not only would he still be alive today but he might've found a place for himself in America. In the game, he would've easily made it to the top five. His essential survival skills were second-to-none and he was crazy enough that he would've struck that Shambo/Coach chord that would've allowed his competitors to keep him around because he wouldn't have been a threat to win. He could've become an actual celebrity, just as he always wanted. He could've potentially satisfied the demons that drove him into the wilderness to never be heard from again.

Survivor becomes a proving ground for people (and honest or deceptive, they are all real people) who, for one reason or another, feel they need to gamble on an abnormal existence. Treadwell gave his life in the name of creating a false self within a false society.

Survivor may have launched the "alternative programming" phenomenon that may or may not be destroying our culture, but it lives on because it transcends that same genre of television. To continue my Beatles analogy: we wouldn't have Nickelback today if it weren't for the road paved by The Beatles, but we don't hold Chad Kroeger against John Lennon, do we?

What fascinates me about the show is the experience of watching these four types fight against each other in a battle of wits. This is rat-in-a-maze, human-condition storytelling, and plenty exciting.

If you watch feature-length documentaries in your valiant pursuit of an informed intelligence, you can't make a blanket dismissal of reality TV. What you have to do is watch Survivor with a conscience. Should we feel sorry for Coach, rather than blindly hate on him for being obnoxious? Maybe. It's up to you. But these people are putting their lives (socially if not corporally) on the line specifically to be judged. This is exactly what Timothy Treadwell set out to do by engaging with and assimilating into a society of grizzly bears for over a decade.

The only thing that really sets Treadwell apart from a Survivor contestant is that he put himself in the way of actual harm and consequently, he's the one that's dead.

In Herzog's film, a mysterious beat is dedicated to Amie, Treadwell's girlfriend and companion up to the moment they both died. She was filmed on the expedition only twice, her face obscured in both shots. Herzog shows us these two clips juxtaposed with a handheld shot of Treadwell that she herself must've shot. The only other evidence of her presence in the wilderness is on the audio recording of the couple's death, to which we are gracefully spared exposure.

What we do see is Herzog himself, his face obscured, listening to the recording as Treadwell's ex-girlfriend Jewel plays it back for him on the very camera that sat by with its lens cap on as the explorers were torn apart. Herzog narrates what he hears for a brief minute then asks that the recording be turned off and, he urges, destroyed. "It will be the elephant in the room all your life," he tells the tape's guardian.

Amie's lack of presence on the tapes despite accompanying Treadwell on significant portions of his expeditions only underlines the extent to which Treadwell was there for the camera as much as the bears. For those poor souls that thrust themselves upon a CBS audience, this kind of voyeurism is a similar given. Like Treadwell, they know the cameras are always running, but even still there will be lapses in sincerity and performances that reveal deeper truths of character underneath the lies.

It's up to the audience, then, to tell the stuff from the stuff. We just have to watch.

The new season of Survivor begins Thursday, February 11th. This twentieth season fulfills host Jeff Probst's contract; the show may not be around that much longer.

You might say my objective with this piece is to get the kind of people who found meaning in Grizzly Man to watch Survivor, and maybe also to turn a couple Survivor fans onto Herzog. I know I have a tendency to err on the side of flippancy, so I'd like to state that no disrespect is intended towards any of the people discussed (except maybe that bitch Jerri Manthey).


  1. With this, you have almost convinced me to watch "Survivor." The only reality TV I watch is "Top Chef," (since "Project Runway" jumped the shark), and I can only find myself invested in reality shows that have some sort of competitive angle. "Real Housewives" or "Jersey Shore"? You couldn't pay me to watch them.

    I'm only hesitant to watch since I feel like I watch too many shows already. Though if "30 Rock" and "Gossip Girl" continue to be giant wastes of time, I may have an opening to add a new show to my lineup.

  2. Amy:

    Thank you for being the only person who read through all two-thousand words of my pro-SURVIVOR rant. "If you can reach one person..."