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'Grizzly Man' and 'March of the Penguins' on DVD
When man bites dog
by Mark Anderson

ld newspaper people got taught that "dog bites man" does not make news. It's only when man bites dog.

Then the lines got blurred by the curse of media over-saturation. First came cable TV, then came the Internet. Pretty soon everybody had an opinion on everything.

Dumb luck: Mother Nature speaks. ["Tim T.," by Mary Bergherr]

Now there's a blog for every screen, a show for anybody with a mouth or a camera and no end to the ceaseless pursuit of fame for fame's sake. Nothing goes unreported and it's hard to cut through the din. And things can get a little crazy when people try to connect dots that aren't really there.

But as luck would have it, "Grizzly Man" and "March of the Penguins," a pair of documentaries recently out on DVD, have the power to thrill and amaze along with the ability to put us human beings back in our place.

"March of the Penguins" is a fine piece of entertainment on the television screen but seems like it should have been made for IMAX. Even so, the soaring landscapes and the endless single-file line of waddling emperor penguins making an annual 70-mile trek to their Antarctica breeding grounds, is an astonishing feat of filmmaking – and of nature.

Once the birds reach their homeland, they pair off to start faithful family units by way of a single egg. Soon after, males by the thousands are huddled en masse amid 100-MPH winds and temps reaching 50-something below. The females head off to sea and bring back food for their exact same family ... a few weeks later. All the while, each male holds an egg atop his feet under a flap on his belly. Like a single organism, they rotate continuously toward the middle of the scrum to share the relative warmth. These birds are hard-wired for success.

Astonishing feat: the emporer penguin's 70-mile single-file trek.

As the movie tells the story, other Antarctica locations are too warm and turn into ocean before the eggs are hatched. Thus, the birds find the coldest of possible places. It's all truly amazing and Morgan Freeman's voiceover lends a regal touch, although sometimes the script is a little overcooked. Director Luc Jacquet's original version, in French, doesn't use Freeman or any traditional voiceover at all – probably for the better.

Regardless, and despite seeming about a half-hour too long on the smaller screen, it's a beautiful and worthwhile experience.

"Grizzly Man" is much more complex and a much better movie. It's got pacing, drama, humor, a great director and the perfect leading man – a star who offers an intoxicating blend of pathos, naive insanity and childlike California bravado as he films himself and his ferocious 1,000-pound roommates in the wild. Mr. Rogers meets Matthew McConaughey with a twist of Tarzan.

Then a bear eats Timothy Treadwell, the implacable star. And a hundred hours of footage fall into the hands of renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog, who makes an epic out of Treadwell's considerable talents. Herzog adds after-the-fact interviews and supplies his own Bavarian-accented voiceover – sparse bits of commentary that are often nakedly honest and unforgivingly wry.

True believer: Timothy Treadwell and a close personal friend.

The story takes place in Alaska, where Treadwell has dropped himself into a five-million-acre national forest. After a dozen summers he truly believes he belongs among nature's nastiest creatures. That adds up to an intriguing combination entering unlucky summer 13, since we know how the story will end.

"He was acting like he was working with people wearing bear costumes out there instead of wild animals," says one of many interviewed acquaintances and friends. "He got what he was asking for, he got what he deserved."

Others are much more sympathetic as we see Treadwell swimming with bears and giving cutesy nicknames to bears and playing with bears and touching their noses. Treadwell works hard to make himself the star of his own footage – often laboring through 15 takes in order to get his commentaries just right.

The lens cap was on the camera the day the bear ate Treadwell, but the unthinkable soundtrack was recorded. The encounter lasts five minutes and the bear treats Treadwell's girlfriend like dessert (after she apparently used a frying pan in a vain attempt to thwart the attack). The Anchorage Daily News reported that a good portion of Treadwell was found inside the bear, while the bear buried the rest of Treadwell's body, along with the girlfriend, for later. Treadwell's wristwatch was found on his disembodied wrist, still running.

Unbearable fate: We know how the story ends.

Wisely, though, the director never lets us hear that footage. Instead, Herzog films himself – visibly shaken while listening through headphones at the home of one of Treadwell's longtime female friends. The moment is almost unbearable (sorry, bad pun).

Dark comedy pops up throughout, although it's mostly at Treadwell's expense as he boasts about his cosmic kinship with the grizzlies, or goes on and on about a bear's poop as if it were a bowl of sacred ice cream. Or when a bear gives a sudden cross look that sends an obvious shiver through even the Grizzly Man himself.

In the end, Treadwell is revealed as a troubled soul who, according to his parents, never recovered after finishing second to Woody Harrelson at an audition for the bartender job with Ted Danson on "Cheers." That scenario probably says as much as anything about the depths of Treadwell's talent, frustrations and tightly wound mad-at-the-world persona.

Soundtrack music is provided by Richard Thompson's electric guitar, along with a small host of exceptional musicians. They create aptly edgy instrumentals at Herzog's behest (a DVD extra, 50-some minutes long, shows the music's creation).

Twisting the metaphor: wired for success.

But here's where the "man bites dog" metaphor gets twisted: Soon after "March of the Penguins" came out, commentators started popping off about how the birds somehow proved the validity of right-wing thinking.

"You have to check out 'March of the Penguins,'" said ultra-conservative columnist Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review. "Penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy. These things – the dedication of these birds is just amazing."

Never mind that the serially monogamous penguins pick a new partner each year.

Meanwhile, Treadwell's apologists insist that he was a bona fide environmentalist protecting bears from evildoers like government and poachers, while detractors say befriending bears makes them far too trusting of people – and all the easier to poach.

The point? These documentaries don't need an interpreter. They are what they are: fascinating films about different kinds of animals being wild.

And, like Hurricane Katrina recently reminded, Mother Nature can speak for herself.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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