23 March 2015

The Bear Necessities

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Is it just me or is Obi-Wan Kenobi a bit of a titty-twat? From a certain point of view, I mean! Consider that he's fully aware that Luke's dad is an asthmatic black dildo and yet rather than tell him the truth he instead throws him a load of bullshit and then buggers off to die. Just think about that for one second! He actually sent someones son to unknowingly kill his own father by saying “Hey, that evil guy killed your dad! Now go and stab him in his fucking head”. I mean surely that's a bit much, isn't it? And this whole lie was just because he preferred to paint the truth with metaphors over simply admitting that he'd been a bit of a shit teacher to Anakin. I mean, to be fair, if I was training somebody to protect the universe and then they turned into a kill-crazy dictator, I'd probably hush it up too. I suppose that's got to be like being a human-biology teacher and then finding out that your star pupil is Josef Mengele. It's not that it's your fault but you'd definitely refrain from mentioning it in future job interviews. My point is that, where poetic license is concerned, there's a time and place. Everybody will have a different opinion on when you can get creative with the truth although surely we have to agree that patricide isn't one of them!  


This all tenuously leads me to Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man which was released in 2005 and is genuinely brilliant. It tells the story of some unhinged head-case called Timothy Treadwell who thinks he's at one with the bears until one spoils his fun and rips his fucking head clean off. For some years, Timothy would spend his time camping out with his man-eating chums whilst also making self-shot documentaries that allowed him to live out his fantasy as their protector. He'd film them scavenging and shitting, he'd film himself stroking them, and he'd also give them stupid names like Captain Brown and Professor Chocolate-Hole or whatever. In their review of this film, Empire Magazine described it as basically being one long suicide note and they're not wrong. Although I don't doubt that Timothy had a genuine love for the animals, it's also obvious that he kind of had a few issues and there's only so long that anybodies luck can last. He also seemed to have a hatred for our civilisation that may hint towards why he might have preferred animals to humans and why being eaten might not have been his biggest concern. When people have something missing in their life, they often tend to replace it with drugs or religion or some other kind of bullshit like that. Here however, we witness a man who instead, and rather sadly, decided to fill his hole with some huge fucking bears... I probably could have phrased that a bit better. 

So basically what the film consists of is a combination of Treadwell's own footage and Herzog's hilariously contrasting and deadpan narration. Whereas Treadwell sees his relationship with the bears as being meaningful and mutual, Herzog sees it in a slightly different way. I'm going to include a pretty long quote right now but fuck it because it's brilliant. Try and imagine hearing this delivered in a slow Bavarian accent after hearing some loopy American rant about his love of the animals; “In all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.” In a nutshell, this quote for me perfectly sums up not only the brilliance of this film but of every film that Herzog has ever made whether they be documentary or not. In fact for me, I don't see a single difference between Herzog's documentaries or his feature films with both simply allowing him to capture his brilliantly nihilistic views on screen. In terms of Grizzly Man alone, I think this film was brilliantly summed up by BBC film critic Mark Kermode who described the contrast of Treadwell's and Herzog's world views as being like if Disney was mugged by Nietzsche.   

Anyway, like I said about Obi-Wan before, there is a time and a place for creative license and everybody will draw the line in different places. Documentaries are often slagged off for playing silly buggers with the facts and Herzog's are no exception. In fact, he's even pretty open about the aspects of his documentaries that he's faked on the grounds that he's less interested in the facts than making something artsy and ironically more honest. This is the reason that his fiction and his non-fiction blends so seamlessly into one for me. Not only do both tend to explore stories of men staring into the abyss but no matter what the subject is, we're always being treated to Herzog's own world view. Recently he's made documentaries about this, cave paintings, death row and people living in Antarctica, however in every case, I'm more interested in how the story is told than the story itself. For example there are moments in Grizzly Man that Herzog has clearly manipulated, such as the concluding sing-along sing-song and an interview with some fucking batshit mental pathologist. Or at least I hope the pathologist was in some way influenced by Herzog as the guy's madness made him seem like he should be in an early Peter Jackson splatter film, poking needles into a zombie's fucking eye. Anyway, the point is that these depictions of reality help to get across what's going on much more effectively than simply sticking to the facts might. This is what Herzog calls 'the ecstatic truth' in which something more artistic or poetic can much more accurately get to the reality of a situation. 

There are other examples too I suppose, such as in his documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly in which we see a man who escaped a prisoner of war camp repetitively locking his doors and windows whilst at home and decades later. This act was apparently all staged by Herzog but lets face it, it gets to the truth of the situation much more effectively than simply having the guy monotonously say “Being locked up and tortured has really fucked my noggin' up”. So I guess the question that I'm building towards is; 'is it right for a documentary to make shit up like this?' To which my instant answer would be 'err- yeah, I don't see why not'. I mean, I can understand that it might be a problem if you're making something about an issue and you start plucking bullshit statistics out of your arse, however with Herzog's films, he only ever intends to tell a story. In which case I don't see why he should be under any more pressure to remain any more factual than a biopic is. Tim Burton's Ed Wood is honest about being a staged reconstruction of a mans life but it does still claim to be telling a true story. However, do you remember that scene where we see Ed Wood meet Orson Welles? Well that was total bollocks. Like Plan 9 From Out Of Space, it was complete and utter shit. It just never happened. If documentaries have to stick to the truth, then isn't it only fair that films claiming to be based on fact should too? Or for the sake of entertainment, wouldn't it simply be more fitting to take the advice from Mark “Chopper” Read in his own semi-true biopic, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”. 

Perhaps the only argument against that would be that biopics claim to be 'based on a true story', whereas it's assumed that documentaries exist for no other primary reason than to inform. But I think this is bullshit too... Lets not forget that the first proper documentary in which all the tropes and cliches of the genre were seen was Nanook Of The North, and most of that film was about as fake as Mickey Rourke's porkchop face. I can understand that it might be an issue if the documentary is claiming to depict the truth and isn't, however Herzog is at least honest about what he's staged. Plus the reason Nanook Of The North had elements tampered with was because the filmmakers preferred their fictionalised version to the reality. Herzog on the other hand simply exaggerated reality to better convey the facts of what was happening in an entertaining way. Plus I think that at the very end of the day, unless your documentary is on a particularly narrow subject such as 'The Fun Of Watching Paint Dry' or 'Why The Transformers Films Are So Good', then a reasonable running time just isn't going to be enough to cover everything completely. If I'm told a fact that I find interesting then I tend not to take it at face value and instead go off and find someway of confirming it with a little extra research. If you don't do that then I suspect you're probably a cheese-brained fucknugget anyway. Grizzly Man is about a man suffering from mental illness and who tried to live a staged version of his own life with some hungry bears... I don't think we're going to get completely to the bottom of this in a mere two hours are we?  

However that's not to say that Grizzly Man isn't one of the most eye opening two hours of cinema out there because it really fucking is. Beyond seeing a squeaky voiced nutter having a meltdown, we also get amazing footage of playful foxes, animals trying to survive, and a bear getting so into a fight that it begins to violently shit itself. What more could you want from a movie? For me, this has to be one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen and one of my favourite films of all time. If you enjoyed it, I'd also recommend the equally phenomenal The Act Of Killing. Both films might not simply drop their camera and press record, but in their own way have more to say about life than an old man, pissed at a bus stop. They also have more insight than he probably does. Plus, even a documentary that sticks to the facts will present its findings with the filmmaker's bias. Herzog shows the chaos and pointlessness of our world with this film, but throw in some catchy music and I reckon it could easily be re-edited as an actual kids movie. Kind of like Winnie The Pooh meets Cannibal Holocaust but with the ending softened for the kids. Throw in a clunky message about respecting nature like Avatar did and I reckon you've got a hit on your hands. Thanks for reading and see you next time, motherfuckers!  
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