Thursday, August 14, 2014

Project Grizzly

Okay: imagine this. You’re hiking through a box canyon somewhere in the Canadian Rockies when a grizzly bear knocks you to the ground. Instead of treating you as a light snack, it then turns round and walks away. Do you:

(a) offer a small prayer to whatever deity you believe in that you’re still alive;

(b) stick to urban areas from now on;

(c) spend seven years and $150,00 developing a suit constructed primarily from titanium and chain mail so that you can go and find the bear and study it up close and let it wallop you as much as it likes?

If you answered (a) or (b), congratulations: you’re a sane and reasonable person. If you answered (c), you’re Troy Hurtubise and you make Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’, look decidedly well-adjusted.

‘Project Grizzly’ is a film of two halves. The first half presents an overview of the suit’s development through various design changes. Early iterations make Hurtubise look like Robocop, a comparison director Peter Lynch points up by having said sci-fi opus play on a drive-in movie screen behind a suited-up Hurtubise, while the final model has a kind of astronaut/deep-sea diver combo thing going on. The second half has Hurtubise and his team take to the mountains to discover that the suit is basically fucking useless.

The first half is the most entertaining, with tree trunks being swung at Hurtubise to test the suit’s durability. Arrows are fired at it. An Olympic shooting competitor swings by to blast it with a shotgun. Hurtubise, wisely, stays out of the suit for this bit. Oh, no, wait, now he’s got the suit back on and he’s offering a quartet of bikers to go at him with baseball bats in the parking lot of their favourite bar. They get stuck in enthusiastically, reducing the bats to splinters. Most of us would sign the suit off as fit for purpose at this point, but Hurtubise has a pick-up truck do a couple of hit-and-run numbers on it just to be sure. Oh, and then walks through fire with it on.

And throughout it all, Hurtubise talks and talks. And talks some more. The inability of Troy Hurtubise to shut up long enough to take a breath swiftly becomes the documentary’s defining aesthetic, more so than bears or bodysuits. Here, again, it delineates neatly as a film of two halves. The first half has Hurtubise pitching himself as some kind of conservationist or researcher. “I’d like to be able to go anywhere in the world,” he drawls, “just take my suit and my team and go and do my research anywhere.” In case you’re wondering what the nature of said research would be, “behavioural activities of bears” is the closest he comes to providing specifics. There’s no discussion of what (if any) university or research body he’s affiliated with or funded by, and the matter of whose £150,000 funded the suit remains unmentioned.

Still, Hurtubise as researcher makes for better company than Hurtubise as mountain man, the persona he doesn’t so much slip into as smother all over himself in the second half. Here, he hooks up with a bunch of guys with guns and cowboy hats and they go into the mountains and the macho asshole levels go off the scale. If it’s not Hurtubise eulogising about Bowie knives as he alternately shaves with them or flings them at trees, it’s one of his team reminiscing about volunteering for ’Nam in order to enjoy the “travel and adventure” opportunities and, when the theatre of conflict got too boring, “playing the game called Outrun the Grenade.”

Imagine being stuck up a mountain with this doofus. In fact with half a dozen of these doofuses. And all of them packing rifles, shotguns and knives. Me, I’d rather take my chances with the bears!

The sense that all this bullshit is purely for the camera solidifies as the suit proves inoperable on rugged terrain. The mask slips: Hurtubise reveals himself as a man desperately trying to provide distraction in order to save face. The suit is quietly abandoned; Hurtubise and his buddies play at being trackers; when a bear finally shows up, Hurtubise opines that the snows are about to close in and it’s time to leave. Maybe next year.

‘Project Grizzly’ was made in 1996. Since then Hurtubise has drifted towards a more militaristic specialism, attempting to market to the US Army everything from flame-resistant face masks to landmine-resistant underseal for vehicles, by way of something called Angel Light which apparently sees through walls. Hmmm, perhaps the definitive cinematic account of Hurtubise as total lunatic has still to be made.

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