Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From Alaska to the Alps

The last two movies I've watched have been quite the dichotomy. The first one, Grizzly Man, is a documentary about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell lived unarmed for 13 summers on the Alaskan peninsula amid wild grizzly bears. For the last five years, he brought along a video camera.

Treadwell's footage is both spectacular and disturbing, with the bears providing the former and Treadwell the latter. You see, Treadwell apparently had it in his head that by being with the bears (indeed, coming so close as to touch them on their snouts), he was somehow saving the bears...from poachers, from the US government, from the ravages of nature itself. What emerges is not so much a portrait of the bears, but of a man who walks away from society as we normally know it. Treadwell seems to be in search of himself, in search of some deeper meaning in his life. Does he find it with the bears? Who's to say...at times he appears jubiliant, at others on the edge of self-destruction. One might even say that it is not the bear who eventually eats Treadwell that takes his life, but rather that Treadwell himself chose the manner of his own escape and death.

Juxtapose this story with that of the Grand Chartreuse, a monastery high up in the French Alps. The Carthusian monks too eschew civilization as we experience it in our everyday lives. In Into Great Silence, the monks' daily routines are chronicled by a filmmaker who waited 16 years for the opportunity. These are no ordinary lives, and this is no ordinary film. In keeping with the silence that pervades the monastery, there is virtually no speaking in the almost three-hour long documentary. The monks are filmed at chapel, in their rooms, performing chores...and sliding down the mountainside snow in their robes! If you want insight into why the monks have cloistered themselves from society, you will be disappointed, as they themselves do not talk to the camera. But if you want to experience their great silence for just a few hours, this movie will not disappoint. We, in fact, found it hard to walk out of the theater and head right to the car. Rather, we felt the need to talk and sit together for a little while before jumping back into our noisy routines.

If this kind of reflection is one sign of a good film, then both Grizzly Man and Into Great Silence pass this particular test with flying colors.



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