Academic journal article Film Criticism

"You Must Never Listen to This": Lessons on Sound, Cinema, and Mortality from Herzog's Grizzly Man

Academic journal article Film Criticism

"You Must Never Listen to This": Lessons on Sound, Cinema, and Mortality from Herzog's Grizzly Man

Article excerpt

Herzog: I think you should not keep it. You should destroy it.

Palovak: Yeah?

Herzog: I think that's what you should do.

Palovak: Okay.

Herzog: Because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life.

--Werner Herzog and Jewel Palovak, discussing the audio footage of the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and Amy Hugenard, in Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005)

For all of the theories we have used to cocoon ourselves against the intrusion of reality in cinema, none has been able to expunge the fundamental sense of presence--or "presence of ... absence," as Christian Metz so famously put it (57)--that the medium always returns us to. And perhaps no other experience accomplishes this effect better than seeing someone on film who no longer exists. Normally, it is easy enough to repress or simply ignore the fact that many of the cinema's populace no longer have living, breathing counterparts. But when a film explicitly underscores the death of its inhabitants, then, in a very immediate way, we are forced to consider once again what it means to be recorded--and how those recordings function beyond one's death.

Perhaps no recent documentary forces its audience to face the material realities of mortality in relation to the cinema more than Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005). The film details the life and horrific death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-appointed savior to the Alaskan grizzly who spent thirteen summers among the animals before being killed, along with his girlfriend at the time, Amy Hugenard, by a bear. The film is a meditation on Treadwell's life and what led him to pursue the extreme lifestyle that he adopted, but the film is as much about, if not more about, the facts surrounding Treadwell's and Hugenard's violent deaths. Indeed, although most of the film is not about the deaths themselves, much of the power of the film rests on our knowledge that its main character is dead. Herzog underscores this fact from the very beginning, with a subtitle under Treadwell in the first shot we see of him that could function for a modest grave marker: "Timothy Treadwell, 1957-2003." And the violent circumstances surrounding his death acquire even more weight when we learn that during the bear attack, which occurred in his tent, Treadwell turned on a video camera but never removed the lens cap. Thus, the video recorded the sounds of the bear attack but not the images. We learn of the existence of this audio footage roughly fifty minutes into the film, during an oddly performative description from the pathologist about what must have occurred when the bear attacked the couple. But more disturbing is the scene that follows this one, a pivotal moment and perhaps the key scene of the entire film.

The scene begins with a shot of Jewel Palovak, one of Treadwell's friends, with a camera in her lap, as a man in the foreground, his back to the viewer, listens to headphones running from the camera. The man holds his left hand to his temple, and although we cannot fully see his face, we know that his eyes are closed in an attitude of concentration. "This is Timothy's camera," Herzog's voiceover states. "During the fatal attack, there was no time to remove the lens cap. Jewel Palovak allowed me to listen to the audio." Herzog--we now know that the man on camera is the filmmaker--hunches forward, intently listening to the audio, as the camera slowly zooms in on Palovak. "I hear rain, and I hear Amy, get away, get away, go away," Herzog notes, the camera holding on Palovak before swinging back to him. The film then cuts to a shot from the original position, and Herzog, after a long pause that prompts Palovak to laugh nervously, tells her, "Jewel, you must never listen to this." After she promises not to listen to the audio or look at the photos at the coroner's office, the film cuts again to the same shot, only now with the filmmaker and the subject holding hands. And now Herzog goes one step further than warning her against listening to the audio: here, Herzog actually advises her to destroy it, "because it will be the white elephant in your room all your life. …

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