Finding Vivian Maier (2013) Documentary | Biography | Mystery Film. Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel



Real estate agent, John Maloof explains how a trip to a local auction house, in search for old pictures to use for a book history of his neighborhood, resulted in him bidding and winning a box full of old negatives. John, goes through the massive quantity of negatives, describes how impressed he was by the quality of the images, quickly determined they were not reverent to his project and just put them away. That could have very likely had been the end of the story, if the power of the images had not pushed him to fall in love with photography. John confides that his photo hobby quickly motivated him to set up a darkroom and devote large amounts of time shooting. As he learned more about photography, he recognized that those negatives he had bought, then stored, were the work of a real master. In an attempt to confirm his suspicion, he selected about 100 images and put them online with the hope that the feedback would confirm his judgement as to the strength of the images. Written by Lane J. Lubell of


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

“Though it’s never less than engaging, there’s a nagging sense of missing out on the bigger picture.”

We’ve all had one of those moments when we’ve opened a second-hand book and photograph placeholder or other personal item has slipped out. As we gaze at the unknown face, we wonder who is in the frame and who wielded the camera. This, although on a slightly more deliberate and grander scale, is what happened to John Maloof. A serial bidder at auctions, he shelled out on a whim for a large box of negatives – one of several for sale on that particular day – and after letting them gather dust, finally decided to scan a handful of them and upload them to photosharing website Flickr.

The photos were so striking that he decided to try to find out more about the photographer Vivian Maier but a Google search yielded nothing. Two years later, a second search chanced upon her recent obituary and the ball was set in motion for what would become something of an obsession. Maier, it turns out, was not a photographer who had simply never quite made it but a children’s nanny who, although never without her camera, seems to have very rarely shared her work with others.


Maloof and co-director Charlie Siskell take a traditional approach to their documentary, rebuilding Maier’s life, moving between her street-captured images and talking heads of some of those people who hired her or fell under her care.

The photos themselves are striking snapshots of humanity – often collected by Maier in the downbeat areas of Chicago, with a reluctant child or two in tow. There are thousands of pictures, ranging from down and outs on street corners to children caught in a moment of tears. Captured using a Rolleiflex – a boxy camera that is distinguished by the fact that it is held at waist height while the photographer looks down into the lens from the top of it – this means that the children or those on the street seem to always be on her level, their gaze straight at the camera, while the shots of adults as they walk past loom large and domineeringly in comparison.

As the film progresses and Maloof – who acts as a pleasant, informative guide – begins to peel back Maier’s surprising family history, a more troubled picture also emerges as we learn that she was a packrat, whose bedrooms tended to be filled with massive stacks of old newspapers and who hoarded virtually ever geegaw or receipt stub that came her way. The snapshots offered by the various children who passed through her care also range from those who thought she was terrific to those who believed she was merely eccentric and one or two who found her outright cruel.

What is almost as interesting is the portrait that emerges of people’s opinions of ‘creatives’ or at least the opinions of those represented here, as they adhere strongly to cliches regarding class mobilility and what drives an artist. The idea that this nanny had the tenacity to keep her talent to herself seems to be an affront to many, somehow against an unwritten rule about domestics knowing their place. Someone also asks in wonderment, “What’s the point of taking it if no one sees it?”, as though the idea of Maier enjoying her hobby for its own sake is ludicrous.

Throughout it all there are definitely glimpses of Maier, not least in her own photos – where she often appears in half shadow, or multiple reflection – but questions remain. Maloof, though earnest, has undeniable skin in the game as the owner of Maier’s archive, so it feels as though the levels of ‘mystique’ are intended to remain high – this means, for example, that although it is revealed that two of her former wards paid for her flat in retirement, we never see them talking about it to camera. These sort of empty spaces hang around the edges of the frame of the film and though it’s never less than engaging, there’s a nagging sense of missing out on the bigger picture.



Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) Biography -History- Film. Director: Justin Chadwick









Nelson Mandela is a South African lawyer who joins the African National Congress in the 1940s when the law under the Apartheid system’s brutal tyranny proves useless for his people. Forced to abandon peaceful protest for armed resistance after the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela pays the price when he and his comrades are sentenced to life imprisonment for treason while his wife, Winnie, is abused by the authorities herself. Over the decades in chains, Mandela’s spirit is unbowed as his struggle goes on in and beyond his captivity to become an international cause. However, as Winnie’s determination hardens over the years into a violent ruthlessness, Nelson’s own stature rises until he becomes the renowned leader of his movement. That status would be put to the test as his release nears and a way must be found to win a peaceful victory that will leave his country, and all its peoples, unstained. Written by Kenneth Chisholm, Sunday 8 September 2013

It’s barely five minutes before the woman starts to wail on the soundtrack. Young men in terry-towels run through the long grass. The sun brushes the lens. He dives into the river a boy, emerges fully-formed as a world leader.

A Long Walk to Freedom lays out the legend ofNelson Mandela in grand, sonorous style. It presents a portrait of the South African freedom fighter that is shot for spectacle. This is a life heavy with significance, pitted with great speeches, backed with swooning orchestration that will climb to an emotional peak just as he addresses the crowd.

Idris Elba plays Mandela from his early days as smoothie lawyer, through his recruitment by the ANC to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual release. Elba makes a convincing statesman – he has the stature, can dummy the gravitas. His take on the icon is respectful and deft. Winnie is played by Naomie Harris, who charges the character with a revolutionary zeal.

The film rushes through Mandela’s life and times. Johannesburg, Sharpeville, Robben Island, freedom. It’s a tick-box check-list of things you should know about the man. An Encarta Encyclopedia article laid out on an epic scale. Time is contracted (we spend 30 minutes in prison; Mandela got 27 years), the greatest hits are rolled out, but there’s nothing that embraces the idea that life makes a man and informs his politics. The day-to-day is lost in the bluster.

It’s tough capturing a life so significant on screen. He revolutionised his country, but it was a long struggle with marginal victories. The film overcompensates. It bellows at you. Tells you apartheid was bad by placing champagne-sipping whites on a balcony and black people down on the streets below. It pumps in the period detail, drops in chunks of news footage to back up its importance. In reality Mandela forced change through by plugging away, by persisting in a long, frustrating struggle. The pace of change was achingly slow. It’s hard not to feel that there’s something in that that’s fundamentally uncinematic.


Hard moral decisions weigh heavily. And in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” Justin Chadwick’s stately screen biography of Nelson Mandela, the British actor Idris Elba conveys the agony as well as the nobility of Mr. Mandela’s quest for South African racial equality. Much of that pain is suppressed rage at the cruelty and injustice of apartheid. As Mr. Mandela looks beyond the fury of the moment and calculates the cost of urging violence, you sense his frustration at having to make the only reasonable choice and taking the high road.

Idris Elba, left, and Naomie Harris in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” based on Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.

Mr. Elba doesn’t look much like Mr. Mandela. He is considerably beefier. But he has the same sharp, hyper-alert gaze that acknowledges the world’s horrors while looking above and beyond toward a humanitarian ideal. He also captures Mr. Mandela’s distinctive accent with an uncanny accuracy. Mr. Elba is completely convincing as a natural leader with a ferocious drive. He makes you feel the almost unimaginable personal price Mr. Mandela paid by spending 27 years in prison, separated from his family and the anti-apartheid movement on an island off Cape Town. His lowest moment comes when he is forbidden to leave the island to bury his eldest son.

The performances of Mr. Elba and of Naomie Harris — who plays his wife Winnie, a volatile firebrand whose simmering anger can erupt at any moment — give a crucial human dimension to this streamlined, panoramic, would-be epic. The Mandelas are the only significant roles in a movie in which everyone else, including white South African leaders, is a bit player.

“Long Walk to Freedom” sustains the measured, inspirational tone of a grand, historical pageant. Events that are worth films of their own are compressed into a sweeping, generalized history. Gripping, dynamically choreographed scenes of street violence are harrowing but short, as the story hurtles forward at breakneck speed.

If the lack of specifics about politics is frustrating, how could it be otherwise? Mr. Mandela’s biography and South African history are so rich and inextricably linked that it is impossible to reduce it to a nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie without it feeling rushed and incomplete. “Winnie Mandela,” Darrell J. Roodt’s recent much inferior film, in which Mr. Mandela made only brief appearances, had the same problem.

Still, to their credit, Mr. Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and the screenwriter, William Nicholson, who adapted the script from Mr. Mandela’s autobiography, have created a movie with the flow and grandeur of a traditional Hollywood biopic. “Long Walk to Freedom” barely glosses Mr. Mandela’s youth. We meet him as a teenager in his Xhosa village completing a ritual initiation into manhood.

Minutes later, he is a dashing hot-shot defense lawyer and amateur boxer, whose first wife, Evelyn, leaves him because of his womanizing. He meets his match in Winnie, and they are immediately aware of themselves as a power couple bound together in a common struggle for racial equality.

Mr. Mandela’s dalliance with violence leads to his arrest and sentence of life imprisonment on Robben Island, where he breaks rocks in a quarry. The movie speeds through his prison years, taking just enough time to show the diabolical ways that punishment is meted out and small privileges extended. When he and his fellow African National Congress leaders arrive there, they are obliged to wear shorts. He wages a successful campaign for the prisoners to be given long pants, a symbolic but small victory. That’s how the movie picks and chooses its humanizing moments, and there are enough to keep its tone from seeming stuffily reverent.

“Long Walk to Freedom” warms up once Mr. Mandela is released from prison, warily reunites with Winnie and negotiates an end to apartheid with the white power structure. The compelling scenes of the Mandelas, no longer youthful, bitterly disagreeing over policy and separating, are so powerfully acted that every accusatory glance exchanged by the couple conveys accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice. Intransigently radical, Winnie Mandela endorsed retaliation against black South Africans who collaborated with the apartheid regime. One scene shows a young man about to be burned alive. During this final third, the film comes the closest to shedding its lofty airs.

Mr. Elba’s towering performance lends “Long Walk to Freedom” a Shakespearean breadth. His Mandela is an intensely emotional man whose body quakes in moments of sorrow and whose face is stricken with a bone-deep anguish. The carefully chosen words in his eloquent declarations of principle, spoken with gravity and deliberation, are deeply stirring.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for scenes of intense violence, sexual content and strong language.




Yves Saint Laurent (2014) Film. Biography – Director: Jalil Lespert



JUNE 24, 2014

More dutiful than elegant, “Yves Saint Laurent”is one of two new dramas about that beatified French fashion designer. The other feature, Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent,” had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month and posits, with flair and humor, a certain sensual mystery about the shy but passionate couturier and his work. Jalil Lespert’s authorized biopic is the first out of the gate in the United States, however, and it trots out a polite recounting of Saint Laurent’s life in its prime. In the Biopic ‘Yves Saint Laurent,’ Fashion From the VaultJUNE 20, 2014

Donning the requisite black-framed glasses, the boyish Pierre Niney plays the wunderkind who was tapped for creative leadership of Dior at the age of 21, ran his own trendsetting fashion house and also struggled through manic-depression. Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) was his lover, wrangler and business partner, making for a beneficial match that would fray with the stress on both sides. The model Victoire Doutreleau (Charlotte Le Bon) also figures as a friend and mild source of intrigue, though the greater world of fashion feels sketchy.

Mr. Lespert and his screenwriters tend to telegraph what’s happening next with on-the-nose dialogue, leaving behind an orderly but not vividly realized biography (or necessarily a complete one). Paris by the decades is recreated, but without a real sense of life in the air. It’s a film that takes on the mood of Mr. Bergé more than that of the prodigy himself, though the depiction of their relationship is at times poignant, if overly restrained.

The head-turning clothes, including Saint Laurent’s legendary Mondrian numbers, are museum-quality, borrowed for the making of the film (and apparently used for only hours at a time). But you might say the same thing about much of the drama, which feels like a well-appointed exhibition of a life.

A Band Called Death (2012) Film; Documentary – Biography – Music – Directors: Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett



Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was a band called Death. Punk before punk existed, three teenage brothers in the early ’70s formed a band in their spare bedroom, began playing a few local gigs and even pressed a single in the hoped of getting signed. But this was the era of Motown and emerging disco. Record companies found Death’s music – and band name – too intimidating, and the group were never given a fair shot, disbanding before they even completed one album. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family love story, A Band Called Death chronicles the incredible fairy-tale journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made it way out of the attic and found an audience several generations younger. Playing music impossible ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (hell…the first punk band!), and are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers.(Imdb)



By Rob Hunter on June 28, 2013

review band called death


Ask the average person on the street to name the city that saw its walls shake with the birth of punk music and odds are they won’t answer “Detroit.” Ask them to name the band who first mashed the raw and the melodic together to create punk music before the term even existed, and they most assuredly won’t say “Death.” And we won’t even bother asking if anyone knew that the forefathers of punk were African American.

But thanks to the new revelatory and inspiring documentary A Band Called Death, the truth behind the band’s nearly simultaneous birth and death may yet find them their proper place in music history.

There were four Hackney boys growing up in ’70s Detroit, but while the oldest kept himself busy in other ways, his three younger brothers developed a serious interest in music. Bobby, Dannis and David taught themselves bass, drums and guitar, respectively, and then set out to change the sonic landscape. Christened Death by David, their de facto leader, the trio recorded a demo tape only to see door after door shut in their face. For some it was the idea of Black musicians rocking out instead of going the Motown route, but for most it simply came down to the band’s name. As quickly as the flame was lit it was subsequently snuffed out again.

But like a phoenix, Death was destined to rise again, and when the internet came calling thirty five years later, what remained of the Hackney boys were ready.


“And it would happen every time we tell somebody, they’d say well what’s the name of the band, and you know we’d kind of [sigh] do one of those and then we’d tell them the name of the band. We’d get the same old reaction we expected to get. Rejection.”

Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett‘s film is essentially a story in two halves. We first meet Bobby and Dannis as they’re revisiting the street and home they grew up in, telling stories about their childhood and parents. The sons of a pastor, the boys were taught from early on about the importance of family in general and about supporting each other in particular. That lesson was carried into their attempted musical careers and was nowhere more apparent than in the issue of the band’s name. David had chosen it after the boys lost their father to a drunk driver (while their dad was rushing an injured man to the hospital), and while the pressures to change the name were immense and constant David never budged. Which meant his brothers never budged either. Not even an offer from soon to be legendary music producer Clive Davis could sway them, and unwilling to bend or conform the band’s demo tape fell into oblivion.

That the brick wall they faced was due more to their “shocking” name than anything else is both ridiculous and odd seen in the light of today’s world where we have bands with names like Cannibal Corpse, I Set My Friends on Fire, Goatwhore, and Death Cab for Cutie.

That first section is made eminently watchable thanks to the brothers’ charisma, positivity and contagious personalities. The oldest brother, Earl, recounts some familial anecdotes and chases each of them with the most honest laughter you’ve ever heard. The band dissolved quickly and quietly, followed by Bobby and Dannis’ spur of the moment move from Detroit to Burlington. The two changed musical styles, found minor success as a reggae band, started families and went on with their lives.

It’s the film’s second half where all of the magic happens. The details of Death’s rebirth in 2008 are best discovered by watching the film, but know that it involved dozens of complete strangers including college students, obsessive record collectors, and renowned musicians like Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins. Most surprisingly, and a source of much of the film’s heart and affection, the story also required the unwitting presence of Bobby’s own three sons. The eldest’s recollection of discovering that not only were his dad and uncles in a punk band but that their songs were now being played at underground parties is a smile-inducing joy to watch.

A Band Called Death‘s biggest fault is an uncontrollable one and therefore no real fault at all: it’s made repeatedly clear that David was the heart and driving force behind the band, and his absence here feels all the bigger because of it. He died well before the band’s music was rediscovered, but as Bobby recalls, David was always convinced that day would come.

There’s no such thing as resurrection in the real world, but through Death’s rebirth David has managed the next best thing. And in the age of the internet the Hackney boys can expect to be playing together for many, many years to come.


In the early 1970s, three teenage African American brothers–David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney–formed a band called Death and played “hard-drivin’ rock & roll”–really, a precursor to punk rock, pre-dating pioneering black punk band Bad Brains by about five years–across their hometown of Detroit. They didn’t get far–their only single rarely got airplay and the unreleased master tapes for their debut album sat unheard in a dusty attic in Detroit for nearly thirty-five years.

A BAND CALLED DEATH, directed by Mark Covino and Jeff Howlett, chronicles the Hackney brothers’ story, from their early years playing instruments purchased with a family insurance settlement in a cramped room in their parents’ house to the band’s rediscovery and eventual revival several decades after the band called it quits. It’s a story about family, faith, and a commitment to a singular divinely inspired artistic vision–one that took the world over thirty years to appreciate.

Now considered visionaries, Death never found any real success in their own time. They had a lot working against them: everyone hated the name (David’s refusal to change it cost the band a record deal); nobody understood their vision (a group of black kids playing punk was unheard of); radio DJs wouldn’t spin Death’s self-released 45 (they didn’t have a full-length record out and their music was overshadowed by the disco tsunami that swept the nation.) Eventually it became too much for the Hackneys to endure, and after several years of disappointment, Death broke up in 1977. “I honestly think that it was almost a wrong place at the wrong time scenario, unfortunately,” Covino said in an interview after the film’s premiere.

Years passed, and Death’s 1974 demos gathered dust in the Hackney’s attic. Bobby and Dannis moved onto other music projects while David struggled with alcoholism and eventually succumbed to lung cancer in 2000. But all of a sudden, word of the band’s only single–“Politicians in my Eye” b/w “Keep On Knocking”–spread over the Internet, and a couple persistent record collectors in complete awe of this history-changing discovery tracked down one of the very few original 45s and brought it to the attention of music historians, label owners, and punk fans all over the world. One night at an underground party, one of Bobby’s sons heard the record and immediately recognized his father’s voice. Then, as David had predicted so many years ago, the world did indeed come looking for those master tapes, and Death was resurrected over thirty years after their heyday. Indie label Drag City released their debut album …For the Whole World to See in 2008.

A Band Called Death is an incredibly thoughtful and compelling film, one of the best music documentaries to come out in years. Covino and Howlett tell Death’s story through archival footage, recent concert clips, and intimate interviews with the Hackneys and the megastar musicians in awe of them (Henry Rollins, Kid Rock, and Questlove sing Death’s praises). It gets tough to watch at times–you can feel the horrible pain Bobby still experiences when he recounts the Death episode and his brother’s death. But you can also feel his pride as he watches his sons play David’s old songs in front of an audience for the first time and see his happiness when he realizes how proud David would be that Death is finally getting their due. A Band Called Death is not to be missed–keep an eye out for another opportunity to catch this fantastic film.

by Justin Lowe

Detroit — renowned home of Motown — isn’t the first touchstone associated with punk rock, despite its distinction for producing Death, regarded as the first African-American punk band. While countless docs attempt to make the case for near-forgotten musicians, Death’s unique place in musical history and the fascinating turns the band’s story takes as it winds its way out of obscurity present a promising opportunity for a proactive theatrical or home-entertainment distributor.

The Hackney brothers – David, Bobby and Dannis – started out playing rock and funk as teenagers, rehearsing at their Detroit home with the encouragement of their parents. Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper and The Who, oldest brother David started leading the band in the direction of harder rock and their sound gradually became more hardcore, taking on the characteristics of prototypical punk rock as the band adopted their fateful name.

Incredibly they secured a recording contract with their first demo tapes, laying down the tracks for their debut full-length “…For the World To See” in a Motor City studio in 1975. Ironically, the music world never heard the album in that incarnation, after their representatives failed to sell the disc to a distribution company. Arista Records’ Clive Davis did offer to release the recording, but only if the band changed their name, which David flatly refused to do. “If we give them the name of our band, we might as well give then everything else,” he reportedly told his brothers.

With their contract cancelled, the Hackneys attempted to self-distribute singles on 45s, but radio stations passed them over and with the pressing and marketing costs, the brothers were soon broke and forced to sell off their instruments. Bobby and Dannis relocated to Vermont and formed the successful reggae band Lambsbread, while David remained in Detroit, plagued by his demons and advancing alcoholism, dying of cancer in 2000.

Conventionally the narrative would wrap up with Death being rediscovered and promoted online by an avid record collector, but instead the film takes a couple more unlikely turns. With the master tapes that David gave Bobby for safekeeping, Drag City finally released “…For the World To See” in 2009 and after nearly 30 years of obscurity, people started giving the group some long overdue attention.

Although filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino rely primarily on a series of generous and introspective interviews with Dannis, Bobby and other family members, along with archival photos and memorabilia, segments featuring Cooper, Henry Rollins and Kid Rock among others demonstrate Death’s visceral appeal. More than any other factor though, it’s the surviving Hackney brothers’ emotional and enthusiastic reminiscences that prove the most riveting material in the film, particularly their recollections of David and his central role in forming and guiding the band.

The film’s final twist, revealing how the band’s songs are being played live for the first time in decades, proves a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties and groundbreaking music.

A BAND CALLED DEATH tells at least three different stories, and all of them are earth-shakingly profound.  The first is historical:  The story of Death is a pivotal story in the history of punk music.  Death, a rock band in Detroit in the early 1970s, was only recently rediscovered by musicians and journalists, but they are tremendously significant.  Three of the four Hackney brothers, David (guitar), Dannis (drums), and Bobby (vocals & bass), were sons of a minister who originally played R&B music, but switched to rock n’ roll after witnessing the baroque showmanship of Alice Cooper and the go-for-broke musicianship of Pete Townshend.

Culturally speaking, some of the fascination surrounding Death concerns the not-insignificant fact that these were three young black men playing with energy and urgency in a typically white milieu.  Their sound was faster and louder than most rock n’ roll of the era, having far more in common with groups like Iggy & The Stooges and The MC5 than with rock bands like The Beatles or The Who, let alone The Isley Brothers or any other band whom America might have expected them to sound like.


Death was unprecedented and therefore they were difficult to classify at the time.  As Questlove from The Roots notes in the film, Death was doing The Ramones before The Ramones got around to it.  As Vernon Reid from Living Colour notes, there was no doubt in Death’s sound.  There was a confidence and a sureness to it.  As Bobby and Dannis Hackney, the surviving members of the band, tell it, this sense of purpose came from their younger brother David, who named the band, designed their logo, and wrote all the songs.  With humility that nonetheless sounds cogent and objective, Bobby and Dannis repeatedly credit David with the foresight, integrity, and creativity that powered the band.  All you have to do is listen to the music to hear that it has a fiery timelessness.  Bobby and Dannis suggest that the price tag on integrity can be expensive — David turned down a life-changing record deal because he wouldn’t buckle to pressure to reconsider the band’s name, which was off-putting to some but had tremendous significance to David.  More on that in a moment.

Documentary directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino juggle multiple stories and themes with tremendous acuity — A BAND CALLED DEATH is engagingly designed on a visual level, and it has a momentum to match the music soundtracking it.  Their film is relaying a footnote of major significance to American music history — Death’s music feels genuinely important in the grand scheme — and yet the film manages to track the human story with uncommon grace and power.  David Hackney is a powerful presence in the documentary, despite only appearing in still photographs and in recordings of his voice and music.  David was a troubled soul but by all accounts, a beautiful one.  He believed in the music he and his brothers were creating and he has been proved right on all counts by retrospect.  This is the second story the documentary tells, the emotional story.  After passing up the record company deal, the brothers put out a limited independent release of their songs, but Death never quite caught on and at some point they chose to move on.  Dannis and Bobby started a reggae band called Lambsbread, and David eventually succumbed to lung cancer.

Around five years ago, some crate-diggers (including Jello Biafra) started passing the scarce copies of Death records around.  Some of the songs hit the music blogs, at which point the New York Times came calling.  (This is where I, and many other music fiends, first heard the standout track “Politicians In My Eyes.”)  More amazingly, Bobby Hackney’s sons, Julian, Urian, and Bobby Jr., musicians in their own right, were so moved to hear their father and uncles on record playing some of the fiercest rock ever, and toured the country covering Death’s songs in a band called Rough Francis (a tribute to one of their uncle David’s nicknames).  I know I’m doing an inordinate amount of recapping here, but the point I wanted to make by doing it is that these are clearly wonderful kids, this is clearly a wonderful family.  I was so touched by this aspect of the movie — the emotion, the beauty of family.  Family will save you.  Family will redeem you.  Julian and Bobby and Urian brought their uncle David to victory ten years after he died.  What is more beautiful than that?  As Brian Spears, a simpatico record executive, points out in the film (and trailer), there just aren’t any other stories like this one.  It’s truly transcendent.

And that is the third of A BAND CALLED DEATH‘s stories — the spiritual side.  David Hackney named the band Death not to intimidate or to shock, as many may have assumed.  The band’s music was emphatic, but not aggressive.  David named the band Death with a redemptive goal in mind, seeing as how the notion of death carries such negativity in so many minds.  Essentially, he wanted the awesomeness of the band and the conspicuousness of its name to do nothing less than to frame the notion of death in positive terms.  Like birth, it’s a thing that happens to all of us.  Like birth, it’s an aspect of existence we have absolutely no control over.  David Hackney seemed to be a tormented genius, but he had an uncanny perceptiveness.  His brothers recount how he accurately predicted his own death, but also how he accurately predicted that one day the world would come looking for Death’s music.  He was right, and he was right.  At press time, Dannis and Bobby are back in the game and Death lives again. A BAND CALLED DEATH is a movie that communicates actual spiritual redemption.  It challenges your very perception of a natural occurrence, the end of life, and as such it has the power to inspire.  You don’t have to be religious to believe in that.



While attending the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash in 2009, I noticed the headlining band was called Death. That doesn’t make any sense, I thought. The only band I know called Death is a death-metal band and that band is no more. What’s going on here? I soon found out when the proto-punk band Death performed for one of the first times since 1977. By the end of the first song, the crowd was cheering its approval. Later as the singer of opening band Rough Francis joined them for a song, it was revealed he was the son of Death’s singer/bass player, Bobby Hackney. So a whole familial rock ‘n’ roll story unfolded during the course of a concert set. One of those rare times, when an audience knew absolutely nothing about a band at the beginning of the night and were bonafide fans by the end of the set.

band called deathIn the early 1970s, David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney, three African-American brothers from Detroit, wanted to replicate the hard-rock sound guitar sounds of Alice Cooper, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. They formed a band and group leader David gave it the improbable name Death.  With their Mom’s blessing, the teens practiced three hours a day in a bedroom converted into a studio and subsequently recorded and shopped a demo.  By 1977, that dream was over – for a few decades anyway.

Filmmakers Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino documented the journey of the Hackney brothers in A Band Called Death, which premiered last month at the L.A. Film Festival. The band’s original demos from 1974 were released as For the Whole World to See in 2009 on Chicago-based Drag City Records. The filmmakers use a combination of interviews, archival clips, and most notably, footage of Bobby and Dannis returning to their family house in Detroit, revisiting their old practice space, kept intact by their Mom all these decades later.   We hear cassette tapes of David, the group’s prankster and visionary, pontificating and playing jokes on friends and family, and hear some of the band’s raw, pre-punk demos.

The music itself has that proto-punk, hard rock/punk rock sound of other Detroit bands of that era like the Stooges, MC5, and early Alice Cooper. Still, Death’s rediscovery has triggered praise from all types of musicians (Henry Rollins and Kid Rock are among the artists contributing commentary throughout the film.) Even in the early 1970s, the music execs who heard Death’s demo all agreed on the band’s talent, but their distaste for the name and the musical climate of the time quashed the band’s chances at success.  Clive Davis wanted to sign the band, but after David refused to change the name, the deal fell through. The brothers pressed 500 copies of a 45 RPM record – “Politicians in My Eyes” b/w “Keep on Knockin’” in 1976. The single gained little interest and the band called it quits in 1977.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers had relocated to Vermont and formed a gospel group. Dannis and Bobby still live in Vermont with their families. They’ve fronted a popular local reggae band, Lambsbread, since the early 1980s. David returned to Detroit with his wife in 1982, writing and recording until he died of lung cancer in 2000. Before he passed away, he told his brother Bobby to keep Death demos because “one day the world would come looking for it.”

And David was right. By the early 2000s, the Internet and record collectors were abuzz over sightings of the rare 45s and copies ultimately wound up in the hands of  a prominent record collector in Chicago. The young record collectors treated the Death single as more or less the holy grail of obscure rock records. And, more amazingly, Bobby’s son, Bobby Jr. (Rough Francis singer), heard one of Death’s songs at a friend’s party and recognized his Dad’s voice. It was the first time he had heard his Dad’s (and uncles’) former band.

Around the same time, a record collector bought one of the old DIY singles for $800. As word of the Death single spread through the indie music grapevine, Drag City and Mickey Leigh (Joey Ramone’s brother) and others contacted Bobby Sr. and after 35 years, Death got their record deal.

Writer/directors Howlett and Covino let the film unravel naturally, not forcing it into any particular direction or viewpoint.  A Band Called Death is not merely a documentary about music industry travails. This film is more about family bonds, perseverance, and where life’s never-ending twists and turns can lead.




A Short Stay in Switzerland (2009) Film. Director : Simon Curtis




The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2009 

Nobody wants to see Julie Walters die. It would be preferable, in fact, for her not to pass away at all. The rambunctious Rita, the marvellous Mrs Overall and Harry Potter’s Molly Weasley (a role still awaiting affectionate alliteration), she has contributed too much to the national life for us to contemplate her being taken away. So actually to watch Julie Walters die – painfully, gruesomely, protractedly, over the course of 90 minutes on primetime television – is a thoroughly disquieting experience. And that, of course, was the point of A Short Stay in Switzerland (Sunday, BBC1).

Walters plays Dr Anne Turner, who watches her husband die of a degenerative illness, only to be diagnosed shortly afterwards with an even more rapacious condition herself. Faced with the prospect of enduring the same descent into incapacity, she decides to kill herself and, ultimately, is assisted in doing so in Geneva, where the practice is legal.

Director Simon Curtis strains to make his drama, which is based on a true story, as lifelike as possible: the real Turner was followed to Switzerland by the BBC and, in a moment of historical authenticity (or, perhaps, cross-promotion), the reporter Fergus Walsh plays himself here. Watch the news footage of Turner’s death and you will notice that the decor of the small apartment in which she dies has been meticulously recreated, while the colour scheme throughout is muted, the washed-out blues of Britain in winter. But it was in the dying that this drama aspired most to realism.

The central half hour of A Short Stay in Switzerland is one of the most harrowing I have seen on television for some time. It begins with Walters experiencing a mild palsy and continues downward without relenting, from falls to paralysis to choking fits, until we see her trying to kill herself, frenetically sucking the dregs of air from a plastic bag around her face, a pharmacological drool spilling from her lips.

This is enough to convince Turner’s three children that the right thing to do is to help their mother end her life. Played with variable degrees of effectiveness by Stephen Campbell Moore, Lyndsey Marshal and Liz White, each of the children is an archetype. White is the thrusting media worker who thinks only of herself, Marshal the fully-grown child, Campbell Moore the caring, sensitive homosexual, who intuits his mother’s needs from the start.

It’s through their conversion that we, too, are supposed to see the need for legalised euthanasia.

There is one exception to this conversion: Turner’s best friend Clare, played by Harriet Walter. Clare is of the mind that she is selfish for wishing to end it all, that she must think of her children and that, ultimately, life is sacred. So offended is Clare that she offers to pray for Turner, an offer that is accepted “if it makes you feel better”. The irrationality of Clare’s religious belief stops her from seeing the truth about her friend’s condition, her dogma so strict she even spurns Turner’s conciliatory suicide note with a lofty toss of her nose.

Ultimately, it’s this whiff of polemic that stops A Short Stay in Switzerland from being as powerful as its creators wish it to be; and it’s the performance from Walters that redeems it from being a simple diatribe. She provides the human nuance that is lacking, both in Frank McGuinness’s script and elsewhere. Her last-minute confession – “I have broken [my children’s] hearts by dying” – is invested with a multitude of emotions: regret, confusion and, ultimately and most powerfully, fear.


By Benji Wilson

26 Jan 2009

In among the sniffles and crumpled Kleenex, a terrible, probably sackable thought occurred to me while watching Julie Walters playing a doctor careering towards a brutal, lonely death. The older Walters gets, and the more wincingly tragic roles she plays, the harder it is to forget her greatest role – as the dotty cleaner Mrs Overall on Acorn Antiques, the spoof soap opera from Victoria Wood’s 1980s sketch show.

This proved highly problematic during A Short Stay in Switzerland(BBC1), a true-life one-off drama that was precision-engineered to tug at every one of your heartstrings until it caused some kind of aortic putsch. Walters played Anne Turner, a strong-willed doctor from Bath. First, she watched her husband die of a rare, belligerent neurological condition, and then, even as she scattered his ashes, she discovered that she had the same illness, but a worse variant. As a GP she was all too aware of what was happening, as well as her powerlessness to do anything about it. She made up her mind almost immediately, gathering her devoted children to announce her decision: “suicide”.

Initially, though it made you feel dirty to think it, Walters’s redoubtable doctor, prone to sudden mood swings because of her illness, was a dead ringer for Overall. As her children fell apart in a very middle-class way, their mother never wavered in her determination to kill herself. But you did keep wondering when she might appear in a cross-neck pinny and wrinkly tights to offer everyone a coconut macaroon.

Such shameful giggling lasted only until the moment when the film jumped forward a year or two, to reveal the effects of the disease on Turner. All of the things that made her who she was – work, tennis, her body, her speech – had been relentlessly chiselled away. “I will soon be unable to physically say, ‘enough’,” read the last line in a letter she dictated begging for admission to a Swiss clinic, where they would allow her to make it stop.

Two scenes followed of the sort that demand inclusion in the long-term mental scrapbook. The first was loud, a slanging match with a best friend who thought her choice was pure cowardice. The second was silent, as she applied her make-up with her two daughters before going off to die. The first scene put the arguments for assisted suicide yea and nay. The other was a two-minute visual definition of human dignity, reminding us that though it takes courage to go on living, it also takes courage to die.

A little chastened, the evening’s viewing then went completely haywire in the form of Generation Kill (FX), a new Iraq War mini-series from the makers of the acclaimed US cop show The Wire. In it, we are effectively embedded with Bravo Company, First Recon Marines, as they lead the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Brash, lewd, loud and lethal, if the Marines weren’t exactly ideal dinner party guests, we were encouraged to believe that they hadn’t been brought up for polite society: “We’re like America’s little pit bull,” said one. “They beat it, starve it, mistreat it, and once in a while they let it out to attack somebody.”

Just as they did with The Wire, Generation Kill’s creators have clearly decided to take whatever is the TV equivalent of Fowler’s English Usageand shred it. If you want clear characterisation, audible dialogue and music to signal when to laugh and when to cry, well, you picked the wrong unit.

The first episode consisted mainly of First Recon hanging about at a Kuwaiti base camp, waiting for the war to start (a moment signalled by the arrival of lorry loads of morale-boosting pizza). Once it did, the best description of events was a total “snafu” – one of the few military acronyms not in the script. If you don’t know it, look it up: it encapsulates what Generation Kill is all about.

Even as the Humvees rolled north, it still required a hastily-scribbled First Recon family tree to try to establish who all these people were. It didn’t help that they all had nicknames and one of them was called Person.

By the end of the episode, however, a useful rule-of-thumb had emerged – if they forgot to pass on crucial information, if they resolutely failed to learn from their mistakes and if they then blamed them on their men, they were probably in charge.

War is chaos, and so was Generation Kill. We have to trust that its creators know what they’re doing, and follow them in to battle, but the message from episode one seemed to be that if you don’t know what’s going on, don’t worry – neither did the Marines.


By Michael Deacon

23 Jan 2009

Assisted suicide is one of the most divisive issues of our time. Last month the little-watched Sky Real Lives channel made front-page news by broadcasting footage of the assisted suicide of Craig Ewart, a terminally ill American, at the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas. In October it was reported that Daniel James, a 23-year-old English rugby player who had been paralysed in an on-field accident, had travelled to Switzerland to die the same way. His parents, who told the press he had a “right to die”, accompanied him to the clinic; no charges were brought against them.

So BBC1’s new one-off drama A Short Stay in Switzerland couldn’t be more timely. Based on a true story, it stars Julie Walters as Anne Turner, a retired English doctor who in 2006 decided to take her own life at Dignitas because she could no longer bear to live with supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease.

“I did wonder whether I should take the part, because I could see it was going to be really painful,” says Walters. “But then I thought, ‘No, this is a subject that ought to be debated, so I’ll give it a go.'”

Walters is keen to point out that the drama has its “lighter moments”: “Anne Turner had a great sense of humour, so she tended to punctuate painful stuff with jokes.” But she says playing the part was emotionally gruelling.

“There’s a scene at the end where she has to say goodbye to her children and she takes the barbiturate [to kill herself],” says Walters. “Once I’d read that in the script for the first time, I couldn’t read it again. I thought, ‘I’ll just have to learn the lines for the scene on the day.'”

For decades Walters used to suffer sleep problems, eased only a few years ago by acupuncture and hypnotherapy. While she was filming, the problems returned.

“Every night I slept badly,” she says. “And I couldn’t sleep for whole nights afterwards. I was prostrate for about three weeks.

I did get up to cook meals but I’d say to Grant [her husband], ‘I’m going to bed for the afternoon.'”

A Short Stay in Switzerland was difficult to act in and at times, it’s difficult to watch, too. But then, assisted suicide is a difficult subject for drama to tackle: the risk of the script sliding into some form of moralistic propaganda is high. But Walters insists that the film has no “political message”.

“It’s just telling her story and opening the debate,” she says. “You see both sides of it. Yes, Anne would have liked the law in this country changed, and she says that in no uncertain terms. But the other arguments are in there too. The main thing is to open up the debate, that’s what we’re aiming for. We’re not trying to say, ‘Oh yes, everybody, you should all enrol with Dignitas.'”

Her own views on the issue (whether assisted suicide can be morally justified, whether it sh2ould be legalised in this country) are complicated.

On the one hand, she “totally” believes, like Turner did, that people have a “right to die”. On the other hand, she doesn’t want a situation where the vulnerable could be coerced into an assisted suicide, and isn’t sure whether it could be legalised in this country without putting them at risk.

“The vulnerable need to be protected as well,” she says. “But I think [assisted suicide] was right for Anne. She was informed, independent and intelligent, she was in no way coerced.”

Preparing for the part, Walters talked at length to Turner’s children. Four years before their mother made her decision, they’d seen their father die, in misery and pain, from a similar illness to hers.

“All three said that, out of the two deaths, hers was the one they could cope with much better,” says Walters. “They felt that [by supporting her] they’d carried out her wishes.” The three have already seen the finished drama, she adds: “At the end they were all obviously crying. They were really lovely – they said I was their mother.”

A Short Stay in Switzerland is an overwhelmingly different proposition to the last thing many of us saw Walters in: the Abba musical Mamma Mia!. She’s always been acclaimed for her versatility. In her 35-year acting career she’s done sketch comedy (Victoria Wood: As Seen on TV), children’s blockbusters (the Harry Potter series), uplifting drama (Educating Rita) and biopic (she played Mary Whitehouse on BBC2 last year), among other genres.

But she plans to work less. Though only 58, she thinks about retiring: “Constantly. I’m tired. A Short Stay… was knackering. The way I relax is I think, ‘I haven’t got anything coming up.’ I like to know there are months ahead when I’ve got nothing.”

If she were to quit acting, millions would miss her. There’s even a petition on Facebook demanding that she be made a dame.

“In a pantomime?” she says, laughing. She was made a CBE last year, but wouldn’t like to guess whether the higher honour will come her way: “It’s not something that greatly troubles me, I have to say. I remember Alan Bennett saying, ‘I couldn’t be a Sir, it’d be like having to wear a suit every day of your life.’ I kind of know what he means.”




Grizzly Man (2005) Documentary-Biography Film. Director : Werner Herzog


Here Herzog explores the life and death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell, a grizzly bear expert who spent thirteen entire summers, completely unarmed, near the bears at Katmai National Park and Reserve in Alaska. He filmed his adventures in this cruel, wild environment. In October 2003, the remains of Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were discovered near their tent: they had been devoured by an adult of the species. It was the first time a bear had attacked people in the park. The film tries to delve into not only the mysteries of wild nature, but also those of the human soul. Herzog put the film together using Treadwell’s own video footage and interviews he conducted. —Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

On Werner Herzog’s Documentary Grizzly Man: Psychoanalysis, Nature, and Meaning 

John W. White


Few documentaries in recent years have received as much acclaim as Werner Herzog’s filmGrizzly Man (2005), a narrative exploration of the life and death of amateur grizzly bear expert and wildlife preservationist Timothy Treadwell, who supposedly lived unarmed among grizzlies for 13 summers before being eaten alive by one. It won the Alfred P. Sloan award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was awarded Best Feature Documentary at the Mountain Film in Telluride Festival. Ebert and Roper have given it “two thumbs way up” and J. Hoberman of The New York Times has called it “one of the most remarkable documentaries produced by any filmmaker in recent years.” However, like many of Herzog’s previous films, it has also generated a certain uneasiness and even minor controversy, as reflected in several online reviews. One critic, commenting on the “myth of objectivity” which surrounds the genre of documentary, prefaced his review by noting that it was personal movie making rather than “the typical PBS/Discovery Channel sort of informational objectivity.”[2] Another commented that he had mixed feelings and was left with the impression of opportunism rather than inspiration on Herzog’s part and felt “somewhat manipulated.”[3] Herzog’s filmmaking has always been controversial (Bachman 1977; Gitlin 1983; Cronin 2002; Prager 2007), but the subject matter of this particular feature may well stir more interest among members of the American public than his past films.

My own interest in Grizzly Man as subject matter is largely cultural, as this contributes so heavily to the perspectives by which we interpret a myriad of phenomena. Herzog being a German director narrating the life of Timothy Treadwell—whose personage is unmistakably the goofy American surfer dude—means a German-American transatlantic interchange in the form of a cultural production which lies somewhere between cinematic art and a sort of public discussion of an intellectual bent.[4] Given that within the history of the German tradition so many of its artists have lived outside of Germany, the fact that Herzog has lived in California for many years does not alter the fact that he was born and raised in Bavaria and more importantly, that his background is rooted in the German tradition. Thus, the reason he offers for his interest in Treadwell as subject matter—that he himself had filmed in the wilderness of jungles—does not suffice. Were it not for his given name and accent, for certainly his proficiency in English must be commended, the viewers might assume his background to be all-American. However, it is unimaginable that the German literary, painting, and intellectual tradition did not play a large role in forming his perspective toward Treadwell (Cronin 2002:136-137, 140; Prager 2007:3-5, 76-81). His deemphasizing his ties to the German tradition in Grizzly Man is understandable to a certain extent. Americans have always tended to be suspicious of European complexes of superiority; given that part of history’s burden entails the complex relationship between the social function of artistic traditions and varieties of nationalistic sentiment, this was perhaps prudent. Many American viewers, however, are exposed to certain elements of the aforementioned German tradition filtered through Herzog’s narration, when, as I will argue here, perhaps Herzog might have done better to learn from American pragmatism in order to gain a more balanced perspective and also from European and American scholars who have been formed in the European Continental Tradition.

Cultural perspectives influence psychoanalysis, nature, and meaning quite decisively. First, any narrative on the Treadwell story—including that co-written by Treadwell himself—or here, commentary thereto, is going to necessarily carry some psychoanalytic value. There are many different angles by which to view persons in a given situation, as they play the roles of the analyst and the analysand, the terms and conditions of the act of analysis itself, and the social context in which such analysis takes place, or to enunciate this last issue more precisely, the certain matrices of social (and to that extent, historical) power with which psychoanalysis remains inexorably enmeshed. Next, there is the matter of environmentalism and the many debates which have taken place within environmental studies, such as the extent to which external nature is a type of anthropomorphism, or as such, subjectively constructed. Then there is the question of meaning, to which the documentary as a narrative act is quite central, and of whether meaningful narration can proceed in the absence of dialectical reflection upon the situation. These three elements, perhaps rarely discussed in such a way as to aim at any sort of synthesis, converge inGrizzly Man. As will be demonstrated in the space below, Herzog’s background and knowledge of the German tradition informs his method of analyzing Treadwell and in certain respects accounts for its inadequacy, as he remains confined by a paradigm of thought originating in German classicism which endeavors to “superegoize” the analysand rather than to explore possibilities of experience. The conception of nature which Herzog posits seems to have been conceived during his earlier years in reaction to natural sentimentalists; however, it is extreme, and its consequences seem not to have been critically thought through. In the first part of this essay, I will attempt to summarize Grizzly Man, for the purposes of the discussion outlined above, with an emphasis on Herzog’s introduction. This summary will then serve as a sort of “backdrop” against which to discuss Herzog’s use of psychoanalysis, his theory of nature, and his sense of meaning.

1. Herzog’s Introduction of Timothy Treadwell

Since Herzog’s films are written to resemble dreams (Cronin 2002:65), it is difficult to mark exactly where the introduction ends and the film proper begins. I consider the first three of the film’s 27 chapters as providing pertinent information for the understanding of the story, and the next two chapters thereafter as part of the film’s commencement. The opening is set in the wilds of Alaska, with Treadwell, wearing an exaggeratedly large black jacket and sunglasses in front of the camera, squatting, in front of two large bears. While his proximity to them is not terrifyingly close, neither does his lack of distance convey any sense of carefree relaxation. In the case that some readers have not yet seen the film and may therefore require some direct citation in order to gain some preliminary understanding of the star of the documentary, I will quote Treadwell at length as he gives a synopsis of his situation:

I’m out in the prime cut of the big green. Behind me is Ed and Rowdy, members of an up-and-coming subadult gang. They’re challenging everything, even me. Goes with the territory. (On the screen appears “Timothy Treadwell, 1957-2003.”) If I show weakness, if I retreat, I may be hurt, I may be killed […] For once there is weakness, they will exploit it, they will take me out, they will decapitate me, they will chop me into bits and pieces. I’m dead. But so far, I persevere, persevere. Most times I’m a kind warrior out here […] No one ever friggin’ knew, that there are times when my life is on the precipice of death, and that these bears can bite, they can kill. And if I am weak, I go down. I love them with all my heart, I will protect them. I will die for them, but I will not die at their claws and paws. I will fight, I will be strong, I will be one of them. I will be … the master. But still a kind warrior. (He kisses his palms, then raises and opens them in the air.) I love you Rowdy. Give it to me baby. That’s what I’m talking about (he repeats this last sentence twice). I can smell death all over my fingers (Herzog 2005).

Thereafter, various shots of bears roaming around a large plain are shown and the sound is filled with rugged-sounding music from an electric guitar, rife with string-bending and feedback with medium distortion. I’ll likewise cite Herzog at length, as he makes his first statement, and introduces himself:

All these majestic creatures were filmed by Timothy Treadwell who lived among wild grizzlies for 13 summers. He went to remote areas of the Alaskan peninsula believing that he was needed there to protect these animals and educate the public. During his last five years out there, he took along a video camera and shot over 100 hours of footage. What Treadwell intended was to show these bears in their natural habitat. Having myself filmed in the wilderness of jungles I found that beyond the wildlife film, in his material lay dormant a story of astonishing beauty and depth. I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil. As if there was a desire in him to leave the confines of his humanness and bond with the bears, Treadwell reached out, seeking a primordial encounter. But in doing so, he crossed an invisible borderline (Herzog 2005).

He follows this by showing more scenes shot by Treadwell, this time of him coming within much closer proximity of the bears, so close, that he has physical contact with them. He shows one particular bear standing on two legs, scratching his back against tree limbs. After the bear leaves, Treadwell approaches the tree. Although Treadwell wears sunglasses, the viewers have no difficulty perceiving his amazement with what he has witnessed. He modulates his voice in such a way as to sound ridiculous, exclaiming, “He’s a big bear!” over and over again. Herzog then discusses Treadwell’s excitement and how well this connected him with children against a backdrop of photographs and drawings, presumably from some of the children he’d visited. In hopes to create awareness, Herzog relates, Treadwell talked to thousands of school children, many of whom would later recall his “fabulous storytelling” as one of the most memorable events of their school years. Additionally, he took his mission so seriously that he never solicited for a fee. “Over time,” relates Herzog, “he reached the status of a national celebrity.” Herzog then shows a clip from an interview with Keith Morrison, which aired on Dateline NBC, “Timothy Treadwell is crazy about bears. How crazy?”[5] Herzog goes on to claim, “It was as if he’d become a star by virtue of his own invention.” Just past the third chapter, Herzog provides more information about the story, such as that his girlfriend, Amie Hugenard, died by his side. Herzog also shows aerial footage of the wilderness scene where much of the Herzog’s story of Treadwell takes place, Katmai National Park, Alaska. He goes on to include a statement rather pertinent to the viewer’s understanding of the plot. “Treadwell saw himself as the guardian of this land and stylized himself as Prince Valiant, fighting the bad guys with their schemes to do harm to the bears. But all this land is a federally protected reserve” (Herzog 2005).

2. Reconstructing Treadwell: Interviews and Inner Being

A good nature program, Mike Lapinski has noted (2005:15), requires the following ingredients: a charismatic lead character, an interesting story, and beautiful scenery with wildlife. Herzog has all of these and he goes back and forth between the Alaskan wilderness and interviews with those who knew Treadwell in locations as far away as California and Florida, as he seems to piece the mystery together. Here I will cite some of the information Herzog was able to collect as I summarize the story. One of Herzog’s first interviewees, Sam Egli, worked on removing Treadwell and Hugenard’s remains, which, as he testifies, amounted to four large garbage bags. Treadwell, he says, probably meant well and in a way tried to help the resource of the bears. “But to me he was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes instead of wild animals … He got what he deserved, in my opinion.” He supposes that the only reason why he lasted as long as he did was because the bears may have considered him afflicted, “like he was mentally retarded or something” (Herzog 2005). To him, it looked as though Treadwell believed that the bears looked frightening, but were harmless creatures, which he could approach, pet, sing to, and bond with, like they were “children of the universe or some odd [sic].”[6] Brad Prager, also citing this interview (2007:86), contends that although this may seem cruel, Egli is hardly alone in thinking this way. Herzog then interviews a couple who knew Treadwell, Marc and Marie Gaede. Marie quotes from one of the last letters she received from Treadwell, in which he declared the exigency of his mutating into a bear to handle the life he led. She explains how this is a religious experience. Marc reads from one of many vitriolic letters he has received, demonstrating the resonance that Treadwell and his activities carried into the realm of the political: “A bear diet consists of liberals and dems and wacko environmentalists that think that the spotted owl is the most important thing in the world. We need to somehow drastically increase the number of bears in America, especially in such key spots as the Berkeley campus” (Herzog 2005).

Larry Van Daele, a bear biologist, discusses the manner in which Treadwell wanted to become a bear. He notes having spoken with those who had encountered him in the field, and watched him act like a bear, “woof(ing)” at them, and acting in the same way that a bear would upon being surprised. Van Daele chooses not to suppose the reason for Treadwell’s behavior; he offers a conjecture, however, asserting that upon spending days in the field with the bears, a certain siren song comes calling, which can induce one to want to spend more time in their simpler world. He then draws a distinction between illusion and reality, which Herzog will grasp as being central to the situation, the former being that it seems to be a wonderful world, and the latter being that the world of the bears is actually quite harsh, and that humans can never enter that world for being different.

Herzog defends Treadwell not as an ecologist, but rather as a film maker. He notes how methodical Treadwell is, taking some shots up to fifteen times, and shows examples of this. Still, during a scene in which Treadwell has been filming himself and has left the camera for a moment, Herzog comments on the shot of bare nature, the wind blowing the brush, lamenting that in all of Treadwell’s excitement, he seems not aware of the beauty that nature can have, should one slow down and take the time to admire it. Herzog then explores Treadwell’s soul, based, of course on Treadwell’s own speech before the camera, which, he explains, “…was his instrument to explore the wilderness around him, but increasingly it became something more. He started to scrutinize his innermost being, his demons, his exhilarations. Facing the lens of a camera took on the quality of a confessional” (Herzog 2005).

In one scene, Treadwell seems to aver his agnosticism, but argues that if there’s a God, then God would be very pleased with him. Then he supposes how it would be, if God could watch how much he loves, adores, and respects the animals, and how he is “one of them.” Moreover, he aggrandizes himself before a supposed almighty, in regard to the altruism of his traveling around the world to show his research for no charge. Of this work he says, “I feel good about myself doing it. And I want to continue, I really hope I can. But if not, be warned. I will die for these animals.” He repeats this last sentence twice. “Thank you so much for giving me these animals, for giving me a life. I had no life. Now I have a life.” Next, Herzog shows a clip in which Treadwell, simultaneously walking and filming himself, discusses his failed relationships with women. Treadwell seems perplexed by his failure to build lasting relationships, given his nice personality. “I’m fun,” he claims, “I’m very, very good in the—You’re not supposed to say that when you’re a guy. But I know I am. They know I am. And… I don’t fight with them, I’m so passive. Bit of a patsy!” He asks himself whether this is a turnoff to girls. Admitting that he is not a “total great guy,” he nonetheless asserts that he has a “good life going.” For awhile he laments the fact that he is not gay, going into graphic detail about what he presumes gay life entails, but then returns to how he loves girls, who, he adds, need a lot more care and finesse, which he says he likes “a bit.” He then attempts to discuss the experience of “when it goes bad and you’re alone,” but cuts himself short. Presumably, his mind is too weak for a deep self-analysis, and the viewers learn that his lamentation over not being gay derives from his belief that rebounding is much more difficult for heterosexuals. Nonetheless, he offers a disclaimer, that he is sure that gay people have problems as well, but just not as much as “one goofy straight guy named Timothy Treadwell“ (Herzog 2005).[7]

Following this, Treadwell is shown lying on the ground, propping himself up on one elbow and speaking to a fox, which he has named “Iris.” He asks the fox how he came into this work, that is, whether or not the fox had ever heard the story. He confirms that he was troubled, and that he drank. He intimates that the fox wouldn’t know what that is. He tells of how experience with alcohol addiction reached a point where he would either die or break free of it. After programs could not help him, he discovered “this land of bears.” He then realized that they were in peril, and that they needed a caretaker, but not a “person messed up.” He continues, “So I promised that if I would look over them, would they please help me to become a better person and they’ve become so inspirational … I gave up the drinking. It was a miracle.” This is not the last time in which he refers to certain events in terms of the miraculous. Then, from high altitudes Herzog shows footage of a region of the glacier, saying:

In his diaries, Treadwell often speaks of the human world as something foreign. He made a clear distinction between the bears and the people’s world which moved further and further into the distance. Wild, primordial nature was where he felt truly at home. We explored the glacier of the back country in the Grizzly Sanctuary. The gigantic complexity of tumbling ice and abysses separated Treadwell from the world out there. And more so, it seems to me that this landscape in turmoil is a metaphor for his soul (Herzog 2005).[8]

To find why Treadwell went into the wild, Herzog visits the former’s parents, Val and Carol Dexter. He explains to the viewers of Treadwell’s childhood in Long Island, where his father worked as the foreman of a construction team for a telephone company. “There must have been an urge to escape the safety of his protected environment.” He learns that nothing in Treadwell’s childhood pointed to anything extraordinary and that he was a good kid, not an “A” student, a “B” student, and that he got along well with kids and animals. As a child, he had a pet squirrel, named Willie, and developed into an all-American boy. His parents tell of him going off to Bradley University on an athletic scholarship, drinking, hanging out with the wrong crowd, injuring himself, thus losing his scholarship, and coming back home. He wanted a new start, so he went out to California when he was 19 or 20. He got a job, hired an agent, and changed his name to Treadwell (a family name), attempting to be theatrical. He had been on Love Connection, and allegedly, he came in second to Woody Harrelson trying out for the bartender on Cheers, and thereafter he spiraled down. Herzog then questions a friend in California, which brings the viewer more information on Treadwell’s cycle of drugs, epiphanies, and the need to create a new persona for himself, sometimes fabricating wild stories. He interviews former co-worker and girlfriend Jewel Palovak, who discusses how troubled he was, including his highs and lows, confirming that he certainly had a dark side. “He was mixed up in drugs, which makes you mixed up in bad people, people with guns. Timothy always had a sense of justice that was his own.” When Herzog asks her how dangerous, she tells a story of their going to the Van Nuys courthouse to watch people being sentenced, but she believes that he did so to remind himself what his life would be like if he went to that dark place (Herzog 2005).

Herzog then flashes to Alaska, where Treadwell stands before a camera, mawkishly repeating, “I’m in love with my animal friends.” In another scene he handles some feces from a bear he had named “Wendy,” ecstatic that it is still warm. Treadwell asserts that everything about them is perfect. At first using free-indirect style, Herzog narrates: “Perfection belonged to the bears. But once in a while, Treadwell came face-to-face with the harsh reality of wild nature. This did not fit into his sentimentalized view that everything out there was good and the universe in balance and harmony.” Herzog then explains why male bears sometimes kill cubs—to fornicate with the mother—and shows a shot of a young bear’s forearm and paw, with Treadwell’s hands holding the paw. Then he shows another scene, this time of Treadwell sitting next to a carcass of a young fox. “I love you and I don’t understand. It’s a painful world.” Herzog counters with his conception of nature: “Here I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder” (Herzog 2005).

Herzog represents Treadwell’s paranoia quite well. He presents one instance where some tourists throw rocks at one of Treadwell’s friends (a bear), and points out that for all Treadwell’s vehement rhetoric against poaching, this is the most damage to the bears that he has been able to film. In one instance, Treadwell, finds a rock on which, presumably, tourists have left him a note that reads, “Hi Timothy, see you in summer 2001.” Treadwell sees this as a warning, as “some sort of a haha.” When it appears that someone has drawn a “smiley face” on a rock near his camp site, he also considers it “Freddy Krueger creepy.” Herzog relates that there were visitors now and then, but emphasizes that for Treadwell there were just intruders, an “encroaching threat upon what he considered his Eden.” In a chapter titled “Park Rant,” Herzog shows Treadwell at the end of his 2001 expedition, during which he had violated Katmai National Park rules by not moving his camp site often enough and by not maintaining enough distance from the bears. Building up a rage which the director describes as “almost incandescent, artistic,” Treadwell rebukes the Park Service and boasts of his having protected the bears, despite the fact that the government (here he means Park Service) has flown over twice in two months. Repeating himself for effect, he asks how they dare challenge him and smear him with their campaigns. “I will continue to do this,” he vows. “I will fight them. I will be an American dissident if need be. There’s a patriotic time going on right now, but as far as this (expletive) government’s concerned … (more expletives). Lowering the sound of the eco-warrior’s voice, Herzog explains, “Now Treadwell crosses a line with the park service which we will not cross. He attacks the individuals with whom he worked for 13 years.” Herzog continues:

It is clear to me that the Park Service is not Treadwell’s real enemy. There’s a larger and more implacable adversary out there, the people’s world and civilization … The actor in his film has taken over from the film maker. I have seen this madness before on a film set.[9] But Treadwell is not an actor in opposition to a director or producer. He’s fighting civilization itself. It is the same civilization that cast Thoreau out of Walden and John Muir into the wild (Herzog 2005).

After showing those closest to Treadwell scattering his ashes near Hallo Bay, Alaska, bringing some amount of closure to the pain of their loss, Herzog finally draws the documentary to a close, but not before visiting the location of Treadwell’s death. Reviewing footage shot right before his death, he zooms in on one bear’s face, commenting that what haunts him is that in all the bears Treadwell has filmed, “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” He avers that for him no such secret world of the bears exists. Closing, Herzog shows footage of bears running, footage that is partially obscured by both distance and fog. He discusses how the argument as to how wrong or right Treadwell was “disappears into a distance into a fog.” It is his footage that remains, he contends, “And as we watch these animals in their joys of being, a thought becomes more and more clear. That it is not so much a look at wild nature as it is an insight into ourselves, our nature. And that for me, beyond his mission, gives meaning to his life and to his death” (Herzog 2005).

2.1 The German Tradition: Experience, Psychoanalysis, Animals

The sort of psychoanalysis I discuss here may require some explanatory remarks. One rather laudable aspect of Herzog’s representation of Treadwell’s psychic being is that the Bavarian director never interviews such would-be authorities as psychologists or psychiatrists to assign Treadwell a certain congenital condition or render otherwise “essentialist” interpretations. In fact, while Herzog sees Treadwell as troubled, he remains unconvinced that Treadwell was insane.[10]

Rather than referring to any sort of neuropathic dysfunction, he very often refers to Treadwell’s “soul” and battling his demons. It is important to remember that German uses one word, Geist, for what in English might be alternately termed soul, spirit, or mind. Thus, Herzog’s conception of the psyche is much more anthropomorphic, such as the original Greek term suggested, being bound up with the idea of human consciousness, which is also how Sigmund Freud considered the psyche and defined his work against American behaviorism (Freud [1940] 1969:28n). Long before Freud, however, the German literary tradition had been experimenting with core concepts of psychoanalysis since the era of Goethe, considered within German studies the age of classicism. Admirers and critics of Freud have noted that Goethe did have an immense impact upon the former (Gay 1988:128, 366, Deleuze and Guattari [1972] 1983: 55, 118). Given that psychoanalysis in the German tradition was born out of the literary narrative, for Herzog to play the role as analyst is nothing extraordinary.

Now, there are two very important aspects to consider when examining Timothy Treadwell: first, as a college dropout, he endeavors to become a bear expert, conducting field “research” (Herzog 2005, Treadwell and Palovak 1997) and wishes desperately to gain the respect of the scientific community (Lapinski 2005:21-22); and second, he seeks to escape his prior social positioning by an attempt to journey into “the secret world of the bears.” He believes that his having “the heart of a wild animal” (Treadwell and Palovak 1997:1) can compensate for his lack of education and training (Bildung). To Herzog, the problems with this must be immediately recognizable: ever since Goethe, subsequent writers have had to confront a certain mindset, which privileges the notion that one should know one’s place in respect to the general order of society, and ought not ethereally venture to experience beyond that, especially when one is presented with an opportunity to take a short cut in order to arrive at a higher station. He argued that “everything that liberates our mind without at the same time imparting self-control is pernicious” and lamented that “there are many people who imagine that what they experience they also understand” (Goethe 1998:67,117).

Thoughts such as these were the driving force behind the moral lesson of his poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling), the story of the young apprentice upon which Mickey Mouse’s character in the Disney cartoon film Fantasia is based. Here, the apprentice’s desire to command the broomsticks to move according to his own will leads him to attempt to cast a spell as a means to that end, despite the fact that his master has admonished him not to do so. When he cannot remember the last line of his verbal formula, events take an unexpected and chaotic turn, eventually forcing him to concede the recklessness of his actions.

These views also contribute to the moral lesson of Faust I, the story of the alchemist and doctor whose aspirations to become godlike lead him to dabble in magic, and whose desire to experience that ethereal sphere beyond the ordinariness of human existence, leads him to the near destruction of a young woman with whom he falls in love. The German critic Erich Trunz has argued that in Faust lies a certain longing (Sehnsucht) to reach over the boundaries of his ego, and this longing rushes him to reach out of his element, mixing up that which is high and that which is low, entangling him increasingly deeper into the underworld (1998:483). However, Faust’s antagonist Mephistopheles, a figure kin to the devil, first appears to him in the form of a black dog, running around, out of control. For Goethe self-control in social relations was so essential to being human rather than animal (151) that he could, as the German critic Hans Mayer has pointed out ([1946] 1974:271), be quite hard and merciless toward those who lacked this quality, as he was to his one-time friend Jakob R. M. Lenz, after the latter had fallen mad, full of whimsical behavior and mistrust, desiring to experience beyond what he was able to understand. An admirer of Anaxagoras’ teaching that animals have active but not passive reason, which serves as the interpreter of understanding (151), Goethe seems to have recognized Lenz’ loss of this reason and seems to have been either incapable of or unwilling to help him regain his humanity.

Georg Büchner would somewhat sympathetically explore Jakob R. M. Lenz in his novella based on the man’s decline. Interviewed by Paul Cronin (2002:137), Herzog names Büchner among authors whose works he “can only speak of in awe” and once used an adapted version of Büchner’s play Woyzeck for his 1976 eponymous film starring Klaus Kinski (Herzog [1976] 2000).[11] More recently however, it has been pointed out that this period for Herzog was fleeting; soon thereafter the film director came to “distance himself from most shared ground with traditional leftist ideas” (Prager 2007:78). Büchner’s literature reflects his own struggle for political freedom during the 1830s (Mayer [1946] 1974), before the terms “left” and “right” became such a part of the political nomenclature, but he is highly regarded in progressive circles. However, it is the figure of Lenz which facilitates an analysis of Treadwell, although, it has been shown that Woyzeck and Lenz seem quite similar in their relative social powerlessness (Larsen 1988). Although short passages provide rather quaint impressions, the following citations show some similarity between Büchner’s Lenz and Treadwell:

…Lenz went through the mountains. The peaks and high slopes in snows, gray rocks down into the valleys, green fields, boulders and pine trees. It was cold and damp, water trickled down the rocks and sprang over the path. Pine branches hung down heavily into the moist air. Gray clouds moved across the sky … pain tore through his chest, he stood, panting, his body bent forward, eyes and mouth wide open, contain all within him, he stretched out and lay over the earth, he burrowed into the cosmos, it was the pleasure that hurt him (Büchner 1986:139-140).

The rush of the face-to-face encounter (with “Mr. Chocolate” bear) lifted me into a euphoric state. I practically flew back to my campsite, dancing a jig and throwing my arms into the air. When I arrived at the raging river, another transformation occurred. I no longer feared the rapids. The river still warranted my caution and respect, but not my cowardice. Summoning the power of the grizzly within me, I dove in and paddled vigorously across, snarling and growling the whole way. I was wild and free (Treadwell and Palovak 1997:29).

Lenz is a character whose ego and reality-consciousness are lost, whose tendencies toward the schizophrenic eventually become rather strikingly manifest (Wittkowski 1978:344; Jancke 1979:242-245). Lenz obtains his joy in life from traversing the natural landscape, but this bonding with nature comes at the cost of remaining alienated from the normal world of human relations. He cannot be persuaded to return to his family, averring that without being able to enjoy nature, he would go mad. But while Lenz relishes in being one with nature while impervious to normal human relations, to bond with or otherwise “become” a certain species of animal never occurs to him.

The desire to experience the perspective of the animal is more apparent by late nineteenth century. One memorable essay by Nietzsche extols the virtues of animals: “Consider the herd grazing before you. These animals leap about, eat, rest, digest, and leap again; and so from morning to night and day to day, only briefly concerned for their pleasure and displeasure, enthralled by the moment…” ([1874] 1993:8). Nietzsche notes the contradiction of man’s pride in being human rather than animal, and man’s envy at the happiness of the animal.[12] But it should be made clear that Nietzsche comes to understand that the aspiration toward animal instincts should not signify escapism or weakness; rather, that these are bound up with the will to power (1913:110). Recently, Monika Maron, an East German author, offers a more in-depth picture of the desire to experience being animal, in her Silent Close No. 6 (Stille Zeile Sechs).[13] Her anti-heroine, Rosalind Polkowski, is a discontented journalist who is hired by a retired Communist Party leader, Herbert Beerenbaum, as an amanuensis, to record his memoirs. Her moral consciousness has problems with the idea. She is tactile, capable of feeling vibrations of the old man’s angry body as these penetrate her flesh down to her heart (Maron 1993:12-13). She also tends to blend the concrete and the abstract, considering both “freedom” and “a human being” to be a “place” and believes that “we all have to be plant, animal, and human” but she finds it difficult to decide on the order (66, 70). In one scene near the beginning of the story, she takes pity on a neighborhood cat and decides to give the cat the sausages that she had been saving for her dinner (15). At another point she asks Beerenbaum whether he really believes that generations of people would be born so that Communists can test their ideals on them, and she avers that her ideal “is to be a cat, as they are not subject to Communists or anyone else” (135).

Despite their shared idealization of being animal—a notion at which humanists of all sorts bristle—there is one very important difference between the figures of Rosalind Polkowski and Timothy Treadwell. Rosalind has been able to rather solidly connect her ideal of being an animal to the fact of her living in an oppressive, male-dominated, single-party sociopolitical order. She is painfully aware that she enjoys no means by which to assert her voice and is therefore excluded from the political process. But whereas Rosalind kept company with those whose views were out of sync with the Party line, Treadwell does not seem to have associated with serious political dissidents. And while, as we have seen, he claims that as a child he had the heart of a wild animal, he might have come into contact with people who could have helped him understand himself in terms of the social and also channel his energies in a positive direction, had American middle class society been able to witness real improvements in their social system. Those who most daringly ventured toward such change, however, were either assassinated, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. and Robert Kennedy, or were otherwise marginalized, while the war in Vietnam, an influx of drugs, and subtler means of ethnic/racial bigotry served to distract from such ideals, creating instead a general climate of chaos, instability and fear. Less than ten years after two of the aforementioned assassinations, which occurred during Treadwell’s preadolescence, the nation’s elite began testing many of the policies that would later become the staples of Reaganomics on the City of New York (Harvey 2005:46-51). Rarely can suburbia insulate itself from the problems associated with an abused and demoralized working class in the inner city, and one can assume that as a youth, Treadwell must have been indirectly affected. In his research, Mike Lapinski interviewed a fellow diver at Bradley, who recalled Treadwell as “always ready to fight…” (Lapinski 2005:92).

One of the most problematic aspects of Herzog’s narration is that only once does he come close to inquiring into Treadwell’s lived experiences, particularly violent ones, which for most people would be rather traumatizing and which are symptomatic of so many communities in New York, southern California, and many other regions. The introduction to Treadwell’s biographical writing is revealing: “I landed in Long Beach, California, an overactive street punk without any skills, prospects, or hopes. What little assets and attributes I possessed were quickly devoured by a voracious drinking problem. Alcohol soon gave way to drugs” (Treadwell and Palovak 1997:2-3). He then tells of a downward turn: “I medicated myself with lines of cocaine, buckets of booze, and sprinkled in the new thrills of crystal meth and Quaaludes. Incidents of madness and danger occurred with frightening frequency.” He then goes on to tell a story of an altercation one night with a drug dealer named Turk, which started when Turk accused Treadwell of being a “maggot hanger-on type” and made other demeaning statements:

I kicked my tennis shoe into Turk’s smug face, knocking him backward into an expensive antique hutch. Fine china avalanched to the ground, some cracking over Turk’s bloody mug. The other three dope dealers lit into me. None of them was much bigger than me, but they were tougher than nails. They punched and slapped me, then flung me headfirst into a wall. Curiously, my head went through the wall, and I was suddenly gazing into the kitchen. Dazed, I looked around, momentarily awed by the shiny, well-appointed room. Meanwhile, the dopers were still in the dining room, with the rest of my body, kicking and striking me… Growling, I extricated my torso, and began spinning around like a top (Treadwell and Palovak 1997:3).

This is fabulous story-telling, embellished with imagery that may invoke episodes of The Three Stooges and animated cartoons. While Herzog discusses the content of Treadwell’s diaries for factual information, he ignores Treadwell’s book, and foregoes any deep investigation into the sources of trauma in Treadwell’s lived experience, meanwhile demonstrating that Treadwell often fabricated stories. Nonetheless, I would not condone simply dismissing Treadwell’s narration on the basis that neurotics fabricate, tempting though it may be. However easily one imagines Treadwell as a “hanger-on type”—he was quite honest about this—he does seem to be emotionally scarred by violence, even if he is not connecting that violence to a historicized socio-political order (see Giddens 1994:229-236). But being marked by human to human violence is merely one part of what motivated the eco-warrior.

One interesting aspect of Treadwell’s character that I have been able to discern, more from his footage of himself rather than from his book, is that he often employs grammatical structures which hardly make sense; his thoughts take flight abruptly through unrelated topics. He rambles, repeating sentences as monologue fillers, I believe, when he is not sure what to say or how he wants to communicate next. And yet, he is half-aware of the splits in his thought-processes and his awkwardness with language, which I think is part of why he shoots some takes up to fifteen times, and why he often corrects his word choice while in mid-sentence.

Aside from his camera, I believe he feels very much under the lens, of the scientific and park community, as well as of the public. Such a complex character as Treadwell who has lived in New York and southern California during late capitalism—certainly not the same civilization as 19th century America—deserves more comprehensive analysis. For this I will use the schizoanalysis offered by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, mainly because it posits the awareness that people are inevitably part of and dependent upon nature and that as a method of analyzing the schizophrenic (from figures such as Lenz to Americans such as Jack Kerouac), this method tends to merge psychoanalysis with what C. Wright Mills referred to as the “Sociological Imagination” ([1959] 2000) by way of the politicization of desire, a concept which Fredric Jameson has traced back to the philosophical work of that other great figure of German classicism, Friedrich Schiller (Jameson 1971:83-106). Treadwell is plagued by the manic-depression and paranoia of the subject who would be the product of what Deleuze and Guattari have termed “the despotic machine” ([1972] 1983:33), a remnant of an earlier historical epoch. Additionally, his ego has been shattered; his torn and twisted mind appears to represent various modes of social control (for Deleuze and Guattari, “territorialization”) in seemingly kaleidoscopic formation, and at the same time the desire to break free from them (or “deterritorialization”). According to their analysis, some paranoid or repressed individuals go through a process in which they attempt to unscramble the codes of modernity, in order to become revolutionary, and it is at this point that paranoia and schizophrenia are able to be separated. Not all achieve such a breakthrough, however, without first suffering a breakdown (278). One possible point of inquiry might be why people such as Treadwell come to empathize with animals more than with the sufferings of politically manipulated people, and whether they unconsciously perceive animals as metaphors for such people. In one scene in his book, Treadwell records his hearing of a story in which “federal people” from Washington, D. C., who were petrified of bears, left Katmai National Park early. He conjectures that Katmai is much safer than Washington, D.C. (1997:76). What becomes apparent is that some bureaucrats need not concern themselves with what is animalistic to gain an understanding of how the will to power operates in society; meanwhile, some people voluntarily forfeit their status as political animals (in the Aristotelian sense) by trying to empathize with animals/nature, and remain politically powerless.

2.2 Subjectivity and Indifference in Nature

Before writing of Goethe’s conception of nature and subjectivity two clarifications are in order. The first is that I am referring to the man’s mature views. Of course, there was one incident in his youth, when, after a skirmish with death, he reacted to the sentimentalists of his own time, positing nature as “indifferent to human sufferings or sentiments” (Boyle 1991:128-129). After Goethe seriously took up the study of nature, he came to believe it to be of paramount importance that nature should draw men to the sublime, and that men of science must maintain a sense of awe in regard to the natural world. He believed that scientific knowledge “helps us mainly because it helps the wonder by which we are called to nature rather more intelligible…”(Goethe 1998:51). The second clarification admits that it is difficult to respect nature by believing it to be irrevocably subjective, and Goethe rejected this idea (Naydler 1996:91). Instead, he considered experiments as “inquiries into nature” (Magnus [1906] 1949:227). But he also realized a considerable barrier between man’s ability to understand and the secrets which nature possessed of her internal order. As Goethe wrote in 1798: “…Nature understands no jesting; she is always true, always serious, always severe; she is always right, and the errors and faults are always those of the human being. The person incapable of appreciating her she despises, and only to the apt, the pure, and the true, does she resign herself, and reveal her secrets” (quoted in Naydler 1996:109). At the same time, he was able to see that much of what scientists might say about nature may reflect more about the scientists as people than about nature itself. Thus, while he conducted scientific study, he classified the different modes of contemplating nature, the lowest level consisting of the exploiters, or those who seek to use what nature offers for their own practical purposes (Magnus [1906] 1949:228-229).

Although Goethe’s awe and respect for nature would come to be shared by Ralph Waldo Emerson on the western side of the Atlantic, for most of the modern era, the demands of market capitalism have had little patience for Goethe’s conception as to how the study of nature should proceed, and scholars trained in the European continental tradition have offered the most trenchant critiques toward the exploitation of nature, or as members of the Frankfurt School Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have termed it in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the domination of nature (Beherrschung der Natur). The term “nature” here can seem somewhat ambivalent, since it may refer to a person’s inner nature and at the same time to the external, natural environment. In the latter case, the “domination of nature” describes the process of appropriation of the earth’s natural resources through and in the form of technology by “Kings no less than merchants” ([1947] 2002:2). Environmentalist scholars in North America have found this model of critique useful in their own studies of the human relation to their natural environment (see Leiss [1972] 1994; Worster 1986). Quite central to the inheritance of the Frankfurt School’s concept of the domination of nature is its materialist emphasis on modes of production and its resistance against jettisoning the concept of the metanarrative (Worster 1990:1142-43). Readers will doubtless find my views for the most part aligned with this sort of critique.

But it is important to examine another side of environmental studies, represented most notably by historian William Cronon, which has emphasized the role of culture in the perception of nature (1983, 1991, [1995] 1996), and therefore the direction of the whole environmental movement. The lead essay in Cronon’s edited volume Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature ([1995] 1996), titled The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,places the environmental movement in a historical context, not in any Marxist historical context (i.e., privileging means and modes of production) but rather in a historicized cultural context which emphasizes instead intellectual movements, or, the ideal rather than the material. Thus, Cronon: “Indeed, it is not too much to say that the modern environmental movement is itself a grandchild of romanticism and post-frontier ideology, which is why it is no accident that so much environmentalist discourse takes its bearings from the wilderness these intellectual movements helped create” (72). William Cronon buttresses his argument by examining and quoting those wild men of the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. One begins to see connections between Cronon’s way of emphasizing the cultural and the extent to which nature can be considered as subjective, or mentally constructed, and the picture which Herzog has offered through the use of the wild man star of his documentary. As Herzog explained to interviewer Paul Cronin, “For me a true landscape is not just a representation of a desert or a forest. It shows an inner state of mind, literally inner landscapes … This is my real connection to Caspar David Friedrich…” (2002:136).

While William Cronon argued that Uncommon Ground intended to reflexively question the environmental movement so that it would not proceed on intellectual foundations “that may ultimately prove unsustainable”(26), he met with strident opposition, especially in Wild Earthmagazine.[14] One article by Bill Willers, “The Trouble with Cronon,” accused him of having “dealt quite a blow to the Environmental Movement.” Cronon, as I believe they quite correctly saw, had formulated his argument while failing to take the possibility of anti-environmental machinations into account. As Cronon writes in the 1996 edition, “These essays were written just before a powerful conservative resurgence produced by a Republican-dominated Congress that quickly distinguished itself as the most hostile toward environmental protection in all of U.S. history.” Thereafter, he remarks that the counter-revolution against environmentalism had met with more resistance than its supporters had hoped (19). On the other hand Herzog offers two positions about his filmmaking, which are both incompatible, neither one being independently tenable. Concerning the environment, he says to Paul Cronin, “We comprehend … that nuclear power is a real danger for mankind, that overcrowding of the planet is the greatest of all. We have understood that the destruction of the environment is another enormous danger.” However, he also claims that “the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude” (2002:66). One may suppose however, that Herzog’s belief that it is possible for film to remain in a realm independent from the political could lead him to make this last claim: he states that he has never been into using the medium of film as a political tool (56), and this strikes me as being hauntingly naïve. The dismal and yet powerful statement that the common denominators of the universe are “chaos, hostility, and murder” is antithetical to the hope for sustainable society, and seems to condone the reversion of western society back to a stage of life being brutish, short, and nasty (as described in Hobbes [1651] 1973:98-102), while the continued domination of nature insures that technological development plays an ever increasing role therein.

While one watches Treadwell in his mood swings, one may notice that Herzog seems to represent himself and his own views in quite polarized reaction to those of Treadwell, as though in contrast to Treadwell’s beautiful seemliness of the dream world, he is presenting the horrifying and intoxicated reality which underlies Treadwell’s illusory conception of nature. In the documentary In the Edges, which depicts the making of the soundtrack for Grizzly Man, Herzog is seen watching a clip of Treadwell swimming with a bear, petting the creature from behind. Seeming to echo the thoughts of Van Daele, Herzog comments: “You see, it looks like complete harmony of man and beast, like him in unison with nature. We believe things are alright and they are not when you find the dark menace in it” (2005). This dynamic, in its illusion-reality orientation, resembles Nietzsche’s juxtaposition of the Apollonian and Dionysian (Nietzsche [1872] 1993).[15] But the director’s stark view on nature made itself manifest long ago, during the filming of his Fitzcarraldo. Todd Gitlin comments in a review over the disastrous consequences of Herzog filming in South America, and discussing Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams (which covers the turbulent events), writes, “…Herzog fulminates against the very nature he went half-way around the world to find. Just as the Romantic identifies with nature’s unspoiled qualities, its wildness or peace … Herzog inverts the image, and some decidedly unpretty themes leap out of the German past…” (1983:51). He then quotes Herzog at length:

I see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and growing for survival and growing and rotting. The trees here are in misery. The birds here are in misery—they don’t sing, they just shriek in pain … We are cursed for what we are doing here! It is a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger! There is no order here, no harmony in the universe! The only harmony is of overwhelming, collective murder! It is a vile, base obscenity! (ellipses mine, quoted in Gitlin 1983:51-52)

Whether Treadwell reminded Herzog of a former version of the film maker himself is something only Herzog can say. However, just as Herzog cannot use the camera in a way that is non-political, he also cannot discuss nature in a way that is non-philosophical. I am reminded of a conjecture offered by William James, whose tendency toward “middle-of-the-roadism” which was so important for pragmatism led him to the juxtaposition of exorbitant polar positions (West 1993:57), “The Tender-Minded” and “The Tough-Minded”. The former includes characteristics such as Idealistic, Optimistic, Religious, Free-willist, while the latter by contrast is Materialistic, Pessimistic, Irreligious, Fatalistic (James [1907] 1968:22). While these traits do not perfectly fit the eco-warrior and the Bavarian director respectively, one sees where Herzog could have developed a more balanced view.

3.1 Toward a Conclusion of Meaning

The decision to narrate events assigns meaning to them (Jameson [1961] 1984). The question of what kind of meaning remains, however. In my view, Herzog could have extended a deeper meaning to the story of Treadwell had he proceeded further in his thought, either toward the “middle-of-the-roadism” described above, or perhaps better, toward any sort of synthesis (Aufhebung). Whereas he might have assigned a higher form of meaning to the events of Treadwell’s life by dialectical thought, he was merely antithetical. While Herzog sometimes showed footage from high altitudes, which served in some respect to grant some authority to certain statements he made, I do not see him as reaching any higher position: he may have moved his position on a horizon, but I have not been able to locate verticality or transcendence of any sort. As troubled as Treadwell was, Herzog might have considered that his subject’s lack of maturation did not occur within a social vacuum, or what possible options might have been open to him had he learned to channel his energies in a more constructive way before arriving in Long Beach. He might have considered that a conception of the natural cycle as consisting of predators can be assimilated into a conception of nature that allows for a certain amount of dissidence between the species within an overall balance that is somewhat harmonious, in weather patterns, the food chain, and so forth. In a time of climate change, gene manipulation, and the basest exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, this should be considered imperative.

Tangentially, Herzog also shortchanges what the German tradition has to offer. By the cant in his narration of the life and death of a real figure in Treadwell, he serves to “superegoize” not only the story, but also the viewing audience (Deleuze and Guattari [1972] 1983:134). As a judge of character, Herzog appears to have learned from old Goethe, even though he is not as harsh. Yet, the attempt to practice Goethe’s ideal for character might have worked quite well in a society which had adopted Goethe’s conception of the human relationship with nature. But throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century, Goethe’s conception to nature has hardly received adherence. It may be time to begin ethically exploring that which experience as a means to understanding entails, while otherwise attempting to absorb and assimilate the abiding wisdom in much of Goethe’s insight into a pragmatic theory of daily political participation. And while Herzog may have intended to close the discussion by stating that the arguments as to how wrong or right Treadwell was disappear into a fog, I imagine that his film will only strengthen debate, especially during an era in which the mass media derives infotainment from characters such as Treadwell, Cindy Sheehan, and Britney Spears, who are willing to take their personal pain forward, acting out in front of the public and crying for help.

Gandhi (1982) Biography Film. Director : Richard Attenborough


In 1893, Gandhi is thrown off a South African train for being an Indian and traveling in a first class compartment. Gandhi realizes that the laws are biased against Indians and decides to start a non-violent protest campaign for the rights of all Indians in South Africa. After numerous arrests and the unwanted attention of the world, the government finally relents by recognizing rights for Indians, though not for the native blacks of South Africa. After this victory, Gandhi is invited back to India, where he is now considered something of a national hero. He is urged to take up the fight for India’s independence from the British Empire. Gandhi agrees, and mounts a non-violent non-cooperation campaign of unprecedented scale, coordinating millions of Indians nationwide. There are some setbacks, such as violence against the protesters and Gandhi’s occasional imprisonment. Nevertheless, the campaign generates great attention, and Britain faces intense public pressure. Too weak from World …(Imdb)

%d bloggers like this: