Penguins and grizzly bears
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Penguins and grizzly bears are the anthropomorphized stars
of two recent documentaries. In “March of the Penguins,” they are cuddly
stand-ins for nuclear families. When compared to the violent video games, rap
music and drug culture that are laying siege to suburban households, the brutal
cold and wind that penguins endure seems relatively benign. Werner Herzog’s
“The Grizzly Man” tells the story of Timothy Treadwell,
who lived in the midst of grizzlies in
The most amazing thing about “March of the Penguins” is that
it was filmed at all. Shot in
In the production notes available on the film’s website (http://wip.warnerbros.com/marchofthepenguins/), Jacquet explains the miracle of Emperor penguin reproduction:
“Because the emperor penguin is a fabulous creature evolving
in the open seas, capable of diving as deep as 1,400 feet for as long as 20
minutes. But in order to breed, for some unknown reason, this extraordinary
creature pays an enormous price for all his majesty, and finds himself walking like a penitent for miles upon miles in the
Despite the obvious drama involved with such a monumental effort to propagate the species, the director felt the need to invest the creatures with human feelings, especially love. He even toyed with the idea of writing dialog for the penguins that would be spoken by actors, something wiser heads convinced him to discard.
His main achievement is to create a visual masterpiece using the austere backstage of glaciers and ice floes, against which the awkward but imposing Emperor penguins conduct their reproductive dance. This ballet in ice mostly speaks for itself, while narrator Morgan Freeman is used to impart the debatable anthropomorphic perspective.
“March of the Penguins” is sadly missing a perspective that
is crucial today, especially in light of the Christian right’s well-publicized
efforts to make the penguins stand-ins for mega-church congregants. That
perspective is evolutionary science, which is the main explanation for penguin
survival rather than family values. It must be said that the film makes a
cursory effort to offer a Darwininan perspective, as
Freeman explains that
In his review of “March of the Penguins,” Roger Ebert tries to supply some of the background information on penguin evolution:
“This is a love story,” Freeman's narration assures us, reminding me for some reason of Tina Turner singing “What's Love Got to Do With It?” I think it is more accurately described as the story of an evolutionary success. The penguins instinctively know, because they have been hard-wired by evolutionary trial and error, that it is necessary to march so far inland because in spring, the ice shelf will start to melt toward them, and they need to stand where the ice will remain thick enough to support them.
As a species, they learned this because the penguins who paused too soon on their treks had eggs that fell into the sea. Those who walked farther produced another generation, and eventually every penguin was descended from a long line of ancestors who were willing to walk the extra mile.
Other than the shark, there is no other animal that comes across less cuddly than the grizzly bear. That did not stop Timothy Treadwell from spending thirteen years among them until October 2003, when he and his girlfriend became a meal.
Treadwell was 46 at the time of
his death and had little to show for his years on earth. The closest he ever
came to success was in an audition for the part of the bartender in “Friends”
that Woody Harrelson landed. After Treadwell came in
second, his hopes were dashed. He then plunged into a life of alcohol and
drugs. Discovering grizzly bears turned things around. Every year he worked as
a waiter in
He founded an organization called Grizzly People, whose website (http://www.grizzlypeople.com) is still functioning. Fortunately, they have more sense than poor Treadwell from the evidence of the words on their home page: “People should remain 100 yards from bears at all times.” Throughout Herzog’s documentary, we see that Treadwell is close enough to touch the nose of approaching bears. Watching these scenes, especially in light of knowing his eventual fate, is painful. Just as painful is to listen to his self-deceptions about how his beloved bears would never harm him. As somebody who still retained a kind of woozy 60s sensibility until the moment of his death, Treadwell is almost as much of a parody of the “peace and love” hippy as found in the most misanthropic pages of R. Crumb.
Herzog’s role as narrator and interviewer in the documentary is to provide a running antithesis to Timothy Treadwell. He tells us that he could never understand how Treadwell could form a bond with such animals since they always appeared as a cruel and indifferent predator to him--just like nature itself. This is ultimately what gives the film its dramatic tension, the contrast between the neo-Hobbesian Herzog and Treadwell the naďf
Despite their different psychologies and their attitudes toward nature, Herzog and Treadwell share something in common and that certainly must have inspired Herzog to take on this project. Despite his lack of professional training, Treadwell was a serious film-maker and had a compulsive attachment to filming the bears and making himself a sympathetic partisan for the bear cause. Developers and poachers were Treadwell's sworn enemies. Herzog shows him in repeated takes before the camera, as he tries to deliver his lines in the most convincing fashion.
Anybody who has tracked Herzog’s career, as I have, will immediately recognize the same kind of obsessions in his work. The most infamous example was “Fitzcarraldo,” a film about the 19th century rubber grower Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who decided to bring grand opera to the Amazon interior against all odds. Needless to say, Fitzcarraldo and Treadwell--like Herzog--were men who would not be denied. Herzog insisted that the film would include a scene shot on location that depicted moving a 340-ton steam ship over a mountain. When this ship eventually navigated some very rough rapids, three crew members were seriously injured. This must have been in the back of his mind when he pointedly referred to the needless sacrifice of Treadwell’s girlfriend, who was far more devoted to him than to the cause of the grizzly bear.
Although it is doubtful that “The Grizzly Man” will ever
serve as ammunition against efforts to preserve grizzly bear habitats, it is
still regrettable that Herzog failed to engage with the very real threat to
their survival and the survival of Alaskan wildlife in general. Timothy Treadwell might not have been the most effective spokesman
for wildlife conservation, but he certainly understood correctly that they
needed to be defended from commercial development, including the kind that
The Alaskan spring is late but frenzied. Alder saplings break free of tenured snow holds. Kodiak bears, the largest carnivores on earth, rouse themselves at Katmai National Park, 300 miles from the spill, and begin searching for shellfish. Bald eagles check nesting sites in spruce snags.
Such questions were foreign to the Sound until a few minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, when Capt. Joseph J. Hazelwood announced over the Coast Guard radio at Valdez, '”Evidently we're leaking some oil and we're going to be here for quite a while.'”
His ship, the Exxon Valdez, was gushing oil at the rate of 640,000 gallons an hour. The spill fouled 1,000 miles of beach, staining the virgin shores of two national parks and countless islands and inlets.
The spill took the
worst toll on wildlife of any industrial accident in history, according to the
(NY Times, April 15, 1990)
Enormous pressures are being generated today to open up