Nature Films and Anti-Nature Films

I saw two similar and yet very different nature movies almost back-to-back this week. Similar in that they both dealt with large mammals living in the frigid North (as opposed to flightless birds in the frigid South), and because they both seemed more focused on people than animals. But different in that one was made by people who obviously love nature, and other by someone who just as obviously hates it.

And the nature hater made the better film: Grizzly Man, currently playing around the Bay Area.

Of course, it helps that this nature hater is the great German director Werner Herzog, and that he was examining a fascinating subject: Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor and untrained naturalist who lived peacefully with Alaska’s grizzly bears for 13 summers before one of them ate him. The bear also killed Treadwell’s girlfriend, Amie Huguenard.

You don’t learn much about bears from Grizzly Man, other than “Keep your distance.” But you learn a lot about Treadwell, who comes off as manic, enthusiastic, charismatic, delusional, and paranoid.

Grizzly Man is a film about a filmmaker. Treadwell took a video camera into the wild with him, and clearly intended to eventually edit his footage. You know those scenes in nature films were the on-screen narrator stands in the wilderness, talking enthusiastically to the camera? Herzog shows how that’s done, revealing Treadwell’s multiple takes as he tries on different emotions and bandannas.

Unlike Herzog, Treadwell clearly loved nature, but it was an idealized love that he never quite reconciled with the violent reality. He saw himself as the bears’ protector, and adopted a family of foxes as pets, seemingly unaware that teaching wild animals to not fear humans is dangerous–for them as well as for you. His misjudgment was fatal; for him, Huguenard, and the bear who killed them.

Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer also love nature, but unlike Treadwell, they’re competent naturalists. They called their film Being Caribou, but they keep their distance from the migratory beasts that they’re following on foot. And while they occasionally talk about wanting to turn into Caribou, they know that it’s impossible. When they see bears, they’re appropriately scared. Being Caribou opens Friday at the Roxie.

Being Caribou is allegedly about the danger that Alaskan oil drilling poses to these magnificent beasts, and the environmental evils of George W. Bush. But the movie fails to make a compelling case, even to someone who already agrees with those sentiments. Nor does the movie tell you much, or make you feel much, about these animals; this is no March of the Caribou.

So what do you get? Beautiful nature scenery (something almost entirely missing from Grizzly Man), and the moderately interesting story of two seemingly nice people on an unusually difficult backpacking trip.

In one of the few effectively emotional scenes, an orphaned caribou calf approaches Allison and Heuer, hoping to be fed. Like good naturalists, and unlike Timothy Treadwell, they want to help but don’t. These two did what was right and lived to edit their own movie. The result isn’t bad, but it’s not all that good, either. It’s like the Nature Channel with a political agenda.

If crossing Alaska seems too difficult, you can cross Tilden Park and attend the Orinda Film Festival (notice how I just assume that you live west of the East Bay Hills). Opening this coming Thursday, it will present 140 films over four days.

And here’s what else you can check out:

Noteworthy: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, Art & Film’s Cineclub, Dolby Labs, Friday night. I was going to recommend this very funny collection of Monty Python sketches, but because of limited seating at Dolby Labs, I’ve been asked not to. There is only enough space for the teenagers this presentation is intended for.

Recommended: Office Space, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. If you’ve ever worked in a soul-killing office at the mercy of a boss who was evil-incarnate, you’ll like this one.

Noteworthy: The Found Footage Festival, Roxie, Friday and Saturday nights; Parkway, Sunday evening. This looks like fun. Clips from random video tapes found in garage sales, dumpsters, and other unlikely places, edited together and presented with live, comic commentary.

Recommended: The Baxter, Lumiere and Act 1 & 2, one-week engagement opens Friday. There’s nothing really surprising about Michael Showalter’s romantic comedy; you know exactly who’s going to get who before the end of the first reel. But that doesn’t keep you from laughing. The entire cast, including writer/director Showalter, Elizabeth Banks, and the wonderful Michelle Williams are letter perfect, but extra credit must go to Peter (The Station Agent) Dinklage, who appears in one scene but steals the entire movie.

Recommended: The Aristocrats, Parkway, ongoing engagement starts Friday. “A man walks into a talent agent’s office and says ‘Have I got an act for you.'” Thus begins an old joke that professional comics never tell audiences but love to tell each other. But what goes between that opening and the punch line differs with every telling, and often includes incest, bestiality, scatological acrobatics, and stuff that’s really disgusting. But as famous comics retell the joke, you laugh more than you cringe. And as they discuss the art of telling it, you learn something about how humor is fashioned.

Noteworthy: Being Caribou, Roxie, ongoing engagement starts Friday. This nature documentary isn’t bad, but it’s no March of the Caribou. It’s more like the Nature Channel with a political agenda. For a longer discussion, see the top of this week’s blog.

Recommended: The Station Agent, Old Oakland Outdoor Cinema, Saturday night. It’s hard to make a good film where almost nothing happens, but writer/director Thomas McCarthy pulls it off. A train fanatic (Peter Dinklage) inherits an out-of-use station in rural New Jersey, moves there, and makes two good friends. That’s about it, but the characters, the performances, and the atmosphere carry the picture. This is a DVD, not film, presentation.

Noteworthy: Downhill, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday night. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock will probably want to check out this 1927 early work from before he became The Master of Suspense. I know I do. Part of the Archive’s Rediscovering British Silent Cinema series, it will be presented with piano accompaniment by Joel Adlen.

Recommended: Ninotchka, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and very funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939 (“The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”). But what else would you expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder?

Noteworthy: No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Roxie, Sunday afternoon. Here’s your chance to see Martin Scorsese’s epic-length documentary on the big screen before it “premieres” on public television. And just like public television, it’s free.

Recommended: Best of Youth, Part 2, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. The second half of the best two-part, six-hour movie since The Godfather. But if you missed Part 1 last week, you may as well skip this one too and wait for a chance to see it from the beginning.

Recommended: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Red Vic, Tuesday through Thursday. The biggest financial scandal ever becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy: the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them.