One of my favourite films is a bleak trawl through the archives of the state, called ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’. The small number of people who have seen this seem to be utterly fascinated by the number of strange, violent and downright bonkers people who lived there in the late 19th century. As an aside, I watched it with a French pharmacist who was trying to learn English and she found it very useful. But that’s by the by.
Last night I was watching an interview between Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, whose working lives collided there some years ago. Errol was living in Plainfields, working on the life of its most infamous inhabitant, Ed Gein, the cannibal/necrophiliac and things that English thankfully has no terms for. He had a theory that Gein’s mother’s body was not in her grave so he sort-of arranged to meet his friend Werner to do an exhumation. Well, Morris never showed, so that never happened thankfully, but Werner did like the town enough to set part of his film Stroyszek there. I was a huge fan of this odd film, with its ending being described by a cop who arrived at the scene, ‘there’s a truck on fire, we can’t find find the keys to the chairlift, and the chicken won’t stop dancing.’ The fact that I can remember this shows what an impact the film had on me at the time.
Then the conversation drifted on to ‘Grizzly Man’, which aparently revived Herzog’s career. A questioner in the audience challenged Herzog on his refusal to include the recording of the last minutes of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Hugenard’s lives – she had turned on the video camera and the sounds of both being eaten by a grizzly bear were described by Herzog as something nobody should ever hear. the wuestioner didn’t believe him.
So Herzog described what had happened. Turn away now if you are feeling fragile. Grizzlies usually eat whole fish, but as they prepare for winter hibernation, they leave the heads and fillet off the fat-rich skin. Herzog described how Amie’s head had been found intact, that the recording had run for 54 minutes until the tape ran out, so we have no idea how long they took to die. Amie had been skinned alive.
Just think about this. I saw this interview last night and have hardly slept from the horror of what I heard him say. Somehow being eaten by a bear to me suggests a violent struggle, that should have been over quickly. This is into Ed Gein’s territory. And yet is it?
As a person interested in language and how we perceive the world, what did the bear see in these humans? They were screaming and struggling, yet he saw them as food. Humans and salmon were the same thing. Grizzlys were sentimentalised by Treadwell, but this shows how utterly alien they are to us. Treadwell and Amie were treated as food, this was more or less usual bear behaviour. But the effect was that of Ed Geins, which is about as psychopathic as it gets. Yes, I know Ed was dealing with his own species, but there is a line here. Very few humans would be able to endure the screams of an animal in pain for such a long time. Even if a human was killing for food, they would have put the animal out of their misery. Wouldn’t they?
Or am I writing like an urban vegetarian, completely out of touch with nature in the wild?