In The Voice of the Desert, Joseph Wood Krutch records his observations while living in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Arizona. Much more than a guidebook or nature catalog, it is an ecologico-philosophical study of the life and origins of his natural environment. Krutch presents a subtle interpretation of desert life, probing the landscape not in a rigorous or statistical fashion, but simply by living in an environment and asking questions of the other occupants of the world he encounters. In particular, the question: how did it [the saguaro cactus; the roadrunner; the spadefoot toad; the grand canyon; etc.] become that way? Krutch reads the life and geography around him with great humility and wisdom. He writes:
Men of most races have long been accustomed to speak with scorn of the few peoples who happen to live where nature makes things too easy. In the inclemency of their weather, the stoniness of their soil, or the rigors of their winter they find secret virtues so that even the London fog has occasionally found Englishmen to praise it. No doubt part of all this is mere prejudice at worst, making a virtue out of necessity at best. But undoubtedly there is also something in it. We grow strong against the pressure of a difficulty, and ingenious by solving problems. Individuality and character are developed by challenge. We tend to admire trees, as well as men, who bear the stamp of their successful struggles with a certain amount of adversity. People who have not had too easy a time of it develop flavor. And there is no doubt about the fact that desert life has a character. Plants and animals are so obviously and visibly what they are because of the problems they have solved. They are part of some whole. They belong. Animals and plants, as well as men, become especially interesting when they do fit their environment, when to some extent they reveal what their response to it has been. And nowhere more than the desert do they reveal it.
This quote struck me as capturing something important about two really excellent documentaries I watched this weekend, Grizzly Man and Rize.
Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor, (apparently he was beat out by Woody Harrelson for the bartender job on Cheers, and this utterly destroyed his fragile ego.), also former alcoholic and drug addict, who decides to devote his life to “protecting” a group of Alaskan grizzly bears (which live in a protected wilderness area). For thirteen summers he films the bears and lives with them in the “grizzly maze,” where he gets lost in his private fantasy world in which he is King of the Animals. He becomes increasingly paranoid about the park rangers, hunters and poachers who are conspiring to do him harm. He treats the bears like pets, giving them cutesy names like Mister Chocolate and playing out his elaborate fantasy of being one of them, being their loving master. It’s hard to tell how much of it is genuine craziness and how much is him being driven by his camera.
He’s very much aware of his camera; his film is both a self-conscious product he is crafting and also a record, so it’s difficult to judge where the craft ends and the record begins when it comes to Treadwell’s motivation and self-perception. Director Werner Herzog interprets him as a filmmaker and an artist, making a convincing case for Treadwell as a nature film auteur, an outsider artist whose movies present his own tortured and complex psychology under unique, compelling, and utterly baffling circumstances. As a filmmaker, Treadwell was craftsman-like, obsessively re-shooting scenes of narration for his story of the bears and his own naïve philosophy of life.
This is apparently a not-too-uncommon story. As one of the last great untouched wildernesses in the world, Alaska attracts this sort of Thoreau-inspired misanthrope, looking to throw away their humanity and achieve a kind of purity among the beasts. Another person who tried to use the wilderness to satisfy private fantasies of transcendence is Alex “Supertramp” McCandless, immortalized in John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. Alex, like Treadwell, finds the human world corrupt and banal; he hitch-hikes to Alaska with no supplies except a 10-pound bag of rice. All his courage and resourcefulness is for nothing when he falls ill and starves to death, huddled freezing in an abandoned Winnebago, the victim of misfortune to which he was made vulnerable by his own hubris.
McCandless and Treadwell both come from upper-middle-class families. For both of them, their home life seems loving, well-fed, and supportive. Both lived in a society sheltered from the kind of adversity and constant mortal danger which has been the norm through most of human history, and which is still quite abundant today; in South Central Los Angeles for example, where pop glamour photographer David LaChappelle finds the stars of his own documentary, Rize.
Rize begins with the story of Tommy the Hip Hop Clown, a charismatic entertainer who has spawned a multitude of ghetto clown troupes. That’s right: hip hop clowns. Already you can tell this film is amazing, right? These communities have developed their own frantic, sort of ecstatic style of dancing. Tommy the Clown has a sordid history as a drug dealer and a Very Bad Person, who overcomes this by inventing a new character for himself and playing it to the max, essentially becoming that character. He performs at birthday parties and generally acts as a father-figure to a lot of kids who’s dads are gangsters, or in jail, or dead. So kids paint their faces up like clowns and dance like crazy lunatics.
Then some of these kids grew up and kept pushing the style further, (because there’s nothing else to do in Watts County except join a gang). As a mature form, called “krumping”, it is adapted to its surroundings and shaped by its unique hardships. It is, in a word, authentic.
Although Treadwell survived for a surprisingly long time, he never fit his surroundings. He was a fraud and a trespasser. He tried to change the nature of bears and foxes to match his own solipsistic idealism: the goodness and purity of nature in contrast with what he perceived as the degenerate fraudulence of human society. The only known cure for fraudulence is death, and Treadwell ultimately did succeed in fitting his surroundings: by becoming food and earth he finally managed to give up his humanity once and for all, which is what he was after all along.