9. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog)
B-side: The World (Jia Zhang-ke)
In 2002, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE kicked off a documentary resurgence that has continued, unabated, to this day. How else to account for a movie about the mating habits of penguins becoming summer ’05’s biggest word-of-mouth sleeper? Much more heartening to me was the release of the far superior GRIZZLY MAN, Herzog’s most acclaimed and widely seen film in over a decade. The film sold itself as the true story of Timothy Treadwell, a self-styled protector of grizzlies who spent over a dozen summers living among them in Alaska until one of them mauled him to death. The movie uses extensive video footage that Treadwell himself shot over a number of trips into the wilderness, but no less important is Herzog’s presence in the film, offering his perspective on Treadwell’s life and legacy and calling into question his subject’s beliefs and methods. It’s safe to say that GRIZZLY MAN wouldn’t have been half as fascinating had this visionary director not taken such an active role in the telling of the story.
THE WORLD is, superficially speaking, a fictional story set against the backdrop of the real-life World Park in Beijing- technically, no more of a documentary than NASHVILLE. But what lingers in the memory of the film isn’t so much the ostensible story (a messy relationship between a dancer and a security guard) as the portrayal of the park itself, both as a phenomenon and a symbol of China’s strange relationship with the world today. In a country most of its citizens never leave, World Park is the closest these people will ever come to, say, London Bridge or the Leaning Tower of Pisa- to say nothing of the park’s replica of the World Trade Center (“the real Twin Towers fell on 9/11, but we still have ours!”).
Both Herzog and Jia, in their own ways, have constructed their films around pre-existing phenomena (Timmy Treadwell’s tapes and World Park, respectively). However, what makes the works more similar than one would realize at first glance is the wonder and curiosity they display for their subjects. Herzog might disagree with Treadwell’s philosophies on the natural order, and Jia may be dubious about World Park serving as a step toward globalization, but both filmmakers clearly marvel at the fascinating subjects they’ve discovered, and each imposes himself on his subject just enough to make the end result that much more interesting.