"I can feel the poop," Timothy Treadwell says with religious reverence near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's fascinating nature documentary, which doubles as a human-nature documentary. The bear droppings in question are so fresh they're still warm, and Treadwell, a California surfer dude who spent his summers in the Alaskan wilderness, talking to the animals, gives the impression of wanting to rub them all over his body. He's gotten so close to the grizzlies by this point ' in his own mind, anyway ' that he seems to have lost track of where one species ends and the other begins. But it wasn't long after this that he got a not-so-gentle reminder when he and his girlfriend were attacked and killed by a bear that may have been experiencing too much late-season hunger to indulge in inter-species small talk.
Saint or fool? Herzog allows for both interpretations, although he breaks ranks with Treadwell on more than one occasion, letting us know via narration when he thinks the self-described eco-warrior has wandered off the reservation. And much of the fascination of Grizzly Man is trying to figure out exactly what Treadwell was up to. Was he protecting the bears, whom he believed were threatened by poachers and tourists? Or was he protecting himself, escaping the world of grownups by hiding behind Mother Nature's skirt? The documentary benefits enormously from the hours upon hours of video that Treadwell shot during his last five summers in Alaska, and he makes a weirdly compelling camera subject, with his Prince Valiant haircut and his Mister Rogers voice and his blossoming paranoia ' Robinson Crusoe slipping into Colonel Kurtz.
Then there are the bears, in all their massive cuddliness ' often in the background of shots, sometimes in the foreground, close enough to touch. Treadwell speaks to them in baby-talk, having assigned them Teddy Bear names like Mr. Chocolate and Sgt. Brown. This doesn't exactly inspire confidence in his qualifications as a bear expert, but actual bear experts have acknowledged a debt to him. And nobody can deny that he compiled some awesome footage, the greatest "Animal Planet" episode of all time. He knew he might be killed, of course. But it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that his girlfriend might also be killed, or that the bear that killed them would have to be killed, to retrieve what was left of their bodies, including Treadwell's arm, with the watch still on it. After 13 years of brazenly defying the odds, his time had finally come.