Academic journal article Criticism

Melodramatic Reenactment and the Ghosts of Grizzly Man

Academic journal article Criticism

Melodramatic Reenactment and the Ghosts of Grizzly Man

Article excerpt

Melodrama offers the hope that it may not be too late.

-Linda Williams, "Melodrama Revised" (1998)'

The ghosts of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's 2005 pseudodocumentary film, visit from a teeming gothic landscape. These ghosts are, first and foremost, those of bear-loving filmmaker Timothy Treadwell and his companion Amie Huguenard, killed by grizzly attack in 2003. They may or may not include the actual bear that killed them and was summarily killed in turn. But the ghosts certainly include the figure of the vanishing animal that bear embodies, a figure that has haunted the modern world, in John Berger's dating, for over two hundred years.2 Beyond the vanishing animal lies the prospect of human extinction it foretells and, we blindly hope, magically forestalls. All converge in the sights of a haunted medium, as the periodic death throes of cinema, reanimated with every institutional or technological lurch forward, pose the problem of an art form ever running out of time. Finally, as we will see, the ghosts of Grizzly Man are those entirely of Herzog's own making.

Grizzly Man, in other words, is yet another story of the human caught between the animal and the machine, a position ever less likely to confer proud distinctions. Humans on and off screen run a veritable shuttle of hysteria between animal disappearance and machine insurgence. Both preoccupations moreover lead to moments of cinematic impasse, where the camera's penetrating gaze fails to overcome a greater animal or machine recalcitrance. It is an impasse, I will say in passing and against the grain of film studies, that has little to do with the loss of the so-called index, little to do with the fact that digital video severs the material link to a moment of light hitting film. Treadwell shot video, but the doubt that attends his imagery is not the doubt that requires a chain of evidence; it is a doubt about the intelligibility of the visible and the audible as such.3 That the same doubt plagues Herzog, who does use film, should be all the proof we need. Analog and digital movies remain in many cases more alike than different. If no one has ever worried that Treadwell's bears are computer-generated effects, it is surely because their actions have little to offer the shopworn fantasies that dominate blockbuster moviemaking. In other words, here, as is often the case, it is not medium but genre and mode that provoke response.

To be sure, this claim would be tidier if the genre and mode of Grizzly Man were easier to name. Herzog does participate in two clearly established genres: the found-footage film, which involves editing and commenting on Treadwell's raw video, and the standard interview-based documentary. Each contributes remarkable material: the video captures a rare and surprising look at Alaskan wildlife, while the interviews show the moving sorrow and loyalty of Treadwell's family and friends. But, as we will see, found footage and interviews do not begin to encompass all that occurs in this film, for its pivotal scenes are best understood as forms of melodramatic reenactment whose strangeness derives in part from their status as occult in both senses of the word: as concealed and as cultishly ritualistic.4 My point of departure here is Linda Williams's expansive understanding of melodrama as a form that demands "dramatic revelation of moral and emotional truths," the "recognition of a hidden or misunderstood virtue."5 This traffic in the "moral occult," as Peter Brooks terms it,6 emerges in Williams's argument as the predominant American mode of cinematic engagement. In Grizzly Man, I argue, it accounts both for Treadwell's and Herzog's contrasting cinematic projects and their ultimate posthumanist similarity. Despite their great differences, the two locate virtue in a permanent muteness of animals and images, respectively, a strategy that would seem to secure both the need for revelatory intervention and the control of its simplistic terms. …

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