Monday, July 14, 2008

Grizzlies and a smoking monkey

Animal Planet, a US TV company, announced last week that it is to broadcast a new eight-part series called The Grizzly Man Diaries. The programmes will document the last ten years in the life of Timothy Treadwell, a rather extraordinary man who lived and died with grizzly bears. Treadwell has already been the subject of a film, made by the German director, Werner Herzog, who is, in fact, a bit of a collector of extraordinary subjects. There was Fitzcarraldo, who had a steamship pulled over a mountain in Peru (Herzog’s diaries on his film about this man are due to be published in English soon), and then there was my own uncle, Mike Goldsmith, the subject of Echoes From a Somber Empire.

Treadwell, born in 1957, spent much of the 1980s involved with drugs, but then found bears. He turned himself into amateur naturalist and documentary film maker, and for 13 seasons lived among the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park in Alaska. In 2003, towards the end of the 13th season, he and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were killed and eaten by one or possibly two of the bears. A film about Treadwell featuring his own video footage and photos, called Grizzly Man, made by Herzog was released in 2005. In it, Herzog suggests that Treadwell was a disturbed individual with a deathwish. The film includes a scene in which Herzog himself is listening, with earphones, to an audio tape that was recording while Treadwell and Huguenard were being killed.

Animal Planet, a US satellite and cable television channel, part of Discovery Communications, says it is dedicated to programmes that highlight the relationship between humans and animals. It launched in 1996, but earlier this year ‘relaunched’ itself under a new image that supposedly sheds a 'soft and furry side' for 'programming and an image with more bite’. The more bite, presumably, includes this new eight part series about Treadwell - The Grizzly Man Diaries. The programmes are based on Treadwell’s diaries, as well as archived video footage and still photographs, and are being made by the same producers as Grizzly Man. According to PR Newswire, Marjorie Kaplan, Animal Planet president and general manager, says the series ‘really digs deep into the glory that Timothy saw in these magnificent creatures’.

Herzog, himself, is rather partial to disturbed individuals. At the height of his fame in the early 1980s, he made Fitzcarraldo, a film based on the real-life Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald. In the film, Fitzcarraldo is portrayed as a bit mad, not least for transporting a steamship by land over a big hill. The actor playing the lead, another German, Klaus Kinski, was considered a major source of tension, as he fought with Herzog and other members of the crew and upset the native extras. In a documentary, My Best Fiend, Herzog says that one of the native chiefs offered to murder Kinski for him, but that he declined because he needed Kinski to complete filming.

In 2004, Herzog published Eroberung des Nutzlosen (Conquest of the Useless). According to the ‘only authentic and official website of Werner Herzog’, this is the ‘mysterious and already legendary diary, written before, during and after the production of Fitcarraldo.’ An Italian version already exists, and English version is in preparation apparently.

I can’t leave Herzog and his disturbed individuals and extraordinary subjects without mentioning another of his films, made about my uncle, Mike Goldsmith. Mike was an Associated Press journalist based in Paris and Morocco, but Africa was his beat. In 1977, he went to Central Africa Republic to report on the elaborate preparations being made by Jean-Bédel Bokassa for his own coronation. While there, Mike was arrested and charged with spying, and Bokassa personally tortured him. After an intervention by the French government, I believe, partly based on the fact that Mike’s mother (my grandmother), Dolly, was dying in London, Mike was released, and arrived in time to see her before she passed away. I remember, though, that he was black and blue. Much later, in 1990, Herzog released Echoes From a Somber Empire in which Mike is filmed revisiting Central African Republic, and interviewing Bokassa’s wives, children and lawyers. A classic last scene shows a monkey smoking.

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