Friday, July 16, 2010

Project Grizzly

If I were to encounter a grizzly bear—and somehow live to tell the tale—I suspect I would be changed by the experience, and probably not for the better. Most likely, I would become some sort of paranoiac anti-wilderness freak, never daring to set foot near anything that remotely resembles teeming, uncontrolled nature. City parks would reduce me to an irrational, sniveling terror. Friends would turn away in disgust as I preached the virtues of clear-cutting and forest fires. Teddy bears would send me into a rage with their vile pro-ursine propaganda.

But when Troy Hurtubise encounters a bear and is mysteriously spared, he is changed in a far different manner (though one could still debate whether or not for the better). Instead of recoiling from nature, Troy faces it head on, dedicating his life to building a suit that can withstand the assault of a grizzly. Now, as Troy lumbers about in a nearly 200-pound shell of titanium and chain mail, all I could think is one thing—what the hell is the point of this lunacy? Is he planning to walk up to a bear and punch it in the nose?

Project Grizzly dedicates itself to chronicling this baffling quest in all its absurd yet compelling glory. The film employs a somewhat cheeky tone at times, courtesy of director Peter Lynch, who seems bemused as much as he is fascinated with this man’s zealous project. When Troy and company ride into the Rocky Mountains to field-test the suit, the score turns martial, gently mocking the men’s pretense to wage war against the natural world. Nature, of course, remains completely indifferent to the petty games of men, and the group spends a week in the mountains without spotting a single bear. Only as they leave does a grizzly finally appear, but by then the suit is abandoned under a blanket of snow and playtime is over.

Lynch doesn’t try to overanalyze Troy’s obsessions, although he does allow for some tantalizing explanations. The paternal relationship is trotted out as one possibility, as the film reveals Troy’s father spent three years building a full-size re-creation of an Iroquois village (maybe monomania is genetic?). The father-son dynamic that Lynch emphasizes is almost mythic: a son seeking approval from his now-departed father. Beneath the idolization of the father there are hints of tension, and it’s hard to tell if Troy is driven by a need to live up to his father’s example or simply surpass him entirely. Notably, Troy’s nickname for the bear that almost killed him is “The Old Man.” His relationship to the animal is a mixture of awe and antagonism—a tender anger that mirrors his own relationship to his father.

If this sort of Freudian stuff doesn’t light your cigar, there’s always the adrenalin junky angle. Much talk is heard of “the edge,” the potency of adrenalin, and the need to return to that same rush first felt during some life-threatening experience. During the mountain expedition, one of the men—a Vietnam War vet, if you can believe it—talks about a game called “Outrun the Grenade” that he used to play with fellow soldiers during dull moments between battles. It’s basically what you think it is.

How else to explain cringe-inducing but often hilarious footage of Troy testing different incarnations of the suit by submitting himself to all sorts of punishment? He is rammed by a truck, battered by a log, and thrown down the Niagara Escarpment. At one point, he invites several burly bikers to beat him up with their bludgeons of choice. After their baseball bats splinter apart, he takes off his helmet and does a merry little jig to celebrate. When the log knocks him flat, he tells everyone he feels fine—better than he did before the log hit him, in fact, since his arm had fallen asleep but is now awake again.

So Troy is clearly a bit of a nut, if a charming one. These sort of charismatic monomaniacs are the bread-and-butter of the documentary form (see Man on Wire for another good example of this type of film): voluble types, somewhat self-absorbed but capable of an intense passion most people will never know. During the mountain expedition, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of Troy’s personality. As a raconteur, he’s first-class. His retelling of the bear encounter that changed his life is pure theatrics. He relives the memory as he recounts it, even throwing himself on his back when he describes how the bear knocked him down. At another point, he goes on a lengthy rant about the two knives he carries, explaining how they are necessary for protection from animals of the two-legged—as opposed to four-legged—variety. There are some real crazy folks up in the mountains, he tells us (yeah, no kidding). He then shows us how one knife is better for stabbing, while the other is for throwing.

Of course, you know that he has never had to stab a deranged mountain dweller—it’s not like there are scores of violent survivalists hiding in Banff National Park, for god’s sake—and most likely never will. This is all a lot of bluff and preparation for a threat that only really exists in his head, much as the suit is preparation for an encounter with a bear that will never come. His ambition and drive are impressive, but it’s disturbing to consider that this life-path borders so close to self-destruction (a cursory online search reveals he has already been bankrupted once by this project).

Still, there’s no denying that the suit is an incredible piece of work. Troy may be a mad mountain-man Ahab hunting his land-bound Moby Dick, but that doesn’t mean he can’t achieve great things, right? This film is pure charm, but it also illustrates the simultaneously creative and destruction power of obsession, which threatens to ruin this man’s life even as it drives him to great lengths of ingenuity. Even if reality never obliges him with the flesh-and-fur foe he craves, Troy will soldier on. Perhaps we should just be grateful that someone out there is willing to put so much effort into handling the ursine threat. After all, while he tinkers with his suit, who knows what the grizzlies are planning?

Just consider this: bears with chainsaws.

So who’s the crazy one now?

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