Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and Sean Penn’s movie adaptation of Into the Wild depict the social theatricality that plays out even when Timothy Treadwell and Chris McCandless are isolated from their social lives. Despite physically relocating to Alaska and being in isolation, Treadwell and McCandless fail to cut themselves off entirely from human society. Treadwell and McCandless were seekers of something that they thought could only be found in Alaska, though that which they were searching for remains amorphous. In the telling of their stories, both men make it a point to embellish their accounts with grandiose language. When appearing before a camera, both Treadwell and McCandless pay attention to the mise en scène that would be captured. As the auteurs of, and actors in, their performances, Treadwell and McCandless were free to assume artistic license in their inventions and performances of their ideal images.
Much of the footage used in Grizzly Man shows Treadwell monologuing in front of the camera, officiating as showman of the park in which he lived among the grizzlies. He sets up a narrative of his spiritual transformation in the Alaska wilderness, describing himself as a “kind warrior” who “becomes a samurai.” The grandiose language that he uses denotes his intention to give off a particular kind of image. In the documentary’s opening scene, he is positioned at the side of the screen, such that the roaming bears behind him could be captured as a backdrop. While Treadwell’s claimed purpose for being in Alaska with the bears was supposedly to study and protect them, he took the effort to ensure that he was a visible subject of these videos and that he had something unusual or exceptional to offer the audience.
Such melodramatic tendencies are also found in McCandless’s journal and from the words he carved in the abandoned bus:
Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. — Alexander Supertramp.
Like Treadwell, McCandless shapes the extraordinary nature of his journey by using grandiose imagery that evokes a messiah-like tone. Both men render their projects in the wilderness as an odyssey, during which they undergo a spiritual transformation and are delivered from the corruptions of human civilization. While McCandless refers to his journey as a “spiritual pilgrimage,” Treadwell alludes to a scientific or exploratory objective to his “expeditions” in Alaska. The dramatization of their intentions and the inflated significance of their missions suggest that both men perceive their experiences to be a remarkable adventure, which, if made known, would set them apart from the crowd. Treadwell and McCandless saw the potential for a great story to be told from their experiences in the wild, and seized the opportunities to furnish their accounts in the most exceptional and exciting way possible.
Wanting to make himself of consequence to his audience, Treadwell uses performatives and anaphora to inflate the significance of his missions and to convey his steadfast devotion to the bears. As “Expedition 2001” comes to a close, Treadwell assures his imagined audience that, despite the tough living conditions, he “came, [he] served, [he] protected, and [he] studied.” In a final proclamation, he “promise[s]” his return. While he reports that “Expedition 2001” was “coming to an end,” he paces toward the camera in order to make his report appear more dynamic. At times he rehearses and experiments with different stylizations of his character for one scene. After adjusting his hair, he attempts the report on “Expedition 2001” again, this time spicing it up with a more aggressive and impassioned delivery:
Expedition 2001 coming to an end for grizzly people—for me, Timothy Treadwell. I came here, I protected the animals as best as I could. In fact, I’m the only protection for these animals out here. The government flying over a grand total of two times in two months. How dare they. How dare they challenge me. How dare they smear me with their campaigns. How dare they—when they do not look after these animals? And I come here, in peace, and in love, neutral, and respect. I will continue to do this. I will fight them, I will be an American dissident if I need be. . . .
Treadwell reiterates his noble intentions and highlights his exceptional role as the “only protection for these animals out [t]here.” His vehement gesticulations and combative diction express his indignation at the negligent care of the grizzly bears “as far as the government is concerned.” In a paroxysm of passionate fury, he launches expletives at the government and the park services—an image that is in conflict with the compassionate identity he wanted to portray. Herzog reveals that Treadwell’s videos were far from candid, and that the noble character he wanted to portray was just part of an act.
Such captured moments accentuate the theatricality of Treadwell’s actions, prompting the audience to question his motivations for going to Alaska. After being caught off-guard when the fox stole his cap, Treadwell was unable to contain his performance. He continues trying to dress up the moment for his performance, but is unable to stop repeating himself. One wonders whether Treadwell really did have his mind on a production he wanted to put forth, and how much footage he would have required. Would Treadwell ever have gone through with the production? Was he just interested in filming in the moment, and did he decide to just tell people that he was going to make a movie out of the footage? As his emotions overcome his act, the medium that he uses to portray his authenticity ends up achieving the opposite effect.
McCandless, too, used a camera to engage in some kind of performance. One of his undeveloped self-portraits that was discovered with his belongings depicts an unshaven McCandless posing in front of the abandoned bus in Alaska. The mise en scène of the photograph accords with the vagabond type that McCandless wanted to depict, and lends authenticity not only to McCandless’s Alaskan adventure, but also to the new identity he assumed. These self-portraits indicate the importance McCandless placed in preserving the moments for his own keeping, if not to capture them as photographic evidence. Whether he intended to show these pictures to anyone is uncertain. Nonetheless, the photographs of McCandless, like Treadwell’s videos, possess the potential to occasion the liveliest interest in the future audience that they imagined, if not to dispel skeptics.
Having said that, there are times when McCandless appears to be performing for himself. In some scenes of the film, McCandless is shown playacting multiple characters while being alone. At one point he doubles as himself and an interlocutor in conversation with one another. During the scene in which he is trying to preserve the moose, McCandless playacts his father from his childhood memory. Under Penn’s direction, Hirsch portrays McCandless rehearsing the trauma of his childhood while being unaware of the trauma in the act. The photographs capture the moment of McCandless’s transfiguration from the subject of his photograph to the object in view; had he been the only one to look at the photographs, he would still have been the audience of his own performance.
McCandless and Treadwell’s journeys into the Alaskan wilderness are symptomatic of their obsession with leaving a mark on the world. Treadwell made himself the star of his own show, while McCandless considered writing a book based on his journey to Alaska. McCandless documented his experiences in the third person, hence making himself the protagonist of his story. Herzog’s narration in Grizzly Man points out Treadwell’s intentional stylization of himself as the “lone guardian of the grizzlies,” denoting the mythical image by which Treadwell wanted to be remembered. His exaggerations of the extent to which he was alone in the wilderness and his conscious exclusion of Amie from his video recordings accord with the heroic image he wanted to portray. He envisioned himself as a noble visionary in a scornful human world. Just after the opening scene of Into the Wild, the image of a moving train with “Alexander Supertramp” scrawled on it comes on to the screen. Later on, McCandless is seen scribbling his new name again on a bathroom mirror. These scribblings symbolize McCandless’s desire to leave his mark on the world. As far away as they were from human society, McCandless and Treadwell always had people on their minds.
McCandless and Treadwell’s journeys into the wilderness of Alaska were opportunities for them to escape their past lives and to redefine themselves. McCandless destroys all forms of identification that he had, including his social security card. In the act of cutting up his key proof of identity, he metaphorically and literally destroys his past identity, by which he no longer wants to be known. The establishment of a new identity was a way for him to attain a new life that was untainted by the horrors of human society, or his traumatic childhood memories of his parents’ dysfunctional relationship. In a similar way, Treadwell saw Alaska and its myth of “extreme wilderness” as his Eden, a place untouched by the evils of human civilization. Like Treadwell, McCandless gets into an obsessive ideal about nature. Alaska symbolized “raw wilderness” and the primordial experiences they were seeking—experiences that was not, as McCandless carves, “poisoned by civilization.” Alaska was for them a metaphor of hope and self-actualization. The relocation to Alaska symbolized one step along the way to complete severance from their previous lives.
In the attempt to abandon their past identities, McCandless and Treadwell adopt new names. Chris McCandless adopts the alias Alexander Supertramp, and Timothy Treadwell was actually born Timothy Dexter. The adopted names of these two men are symbolic of the particular kinds of characters they wanted to be or that they perceived as accurate representations of their true selves. “Supertramp” emphasizes the exceptional physical abilities of the vagabond, who endures the harsh conditions of Alaska, and eventually triumphs over his difficulties. McCandless’s new name indicates the elevated view that McCandless had of himself. The adoption of a new name, however, only served to re-inscribe the fictitiousness of McCandless and Treadwell’s invented identities.
Whereas Treadwell was able to adopt the persona that became his identity, McCandless was not. In the death scene of Into the Wild, Penn points out that McCandless stops being Alexander Supertramp, and returns to being Chris McCandless. Penn directs the audience’s attention to McCandless’s longtime quest for a new identity, which he gives up as soon as death comes knocking on his door—theoretically, at least, McCandless returned to his past identity. In this moment, the film speaks to the persistence of memory, and prompts the viewer to think about his own identity and that which he values.
Ironically, the performances that the two men carry out serve to perpetuate the cultural myths and ideals of the society that they were trying to run away from. The place to which McCandless and Treadwell flee is still a part of America, and the myth of Alaska as the “last frontier” has long been a part of the American cultural imagination. Symptomatic of American ideals of masculinity, Treadwell’s machismo motivates him to live among grizzly bears—notorious for being the most dangerous animals—in order to embolden the masculine and intrepid qualities he wanted to exhibit. The impulse to perform demonstrates the enduring attachment that people have to their social relations: even when living in isolation, both McCandless and Treadwell were conforming to their preconceived social norms. In addition, memory binds them to their past identities. Hence, insofar as Alaska and the grizzlies provided them with a new stage setting, McCandless and Treadwell were, at the end of the day, performing to the same social choreography that they had always known.