Mr. Know-It-All: When Someone Melts Down in Public, Can I Record It? (Please?)
How do I know if filming a public confrontation is my civic duty or just click-rabid voyeurism?
Don’t ask why, but for a few years my brother-in-law and I had a tradition of watching Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man to round out our Thanksgiving night. Stuffed full of bird, lethargic and tipsy, we’d settle in to reexperience the tragic and brutally unnerving saga of Timothy Treadwell, the eccentric bear enthusiast who lived among grizzlies in the Alaskan bush.
It’s a masterfully made film. But year after year, there was one scene that always felt slightly off to me. You know the one: Treadwell’s friend Jewel Palovak and Herzog are sitting across from each other. She stares at him. He stares at the ground, his hands cupping a pair of headphones over his ears. She’s letting Herzog listen to an audio recording of the bear attack that ultimately killed Treadwell and his girlfriend. (Apparently, Treadwell didn’t have time to remove the lens cap on his video camera, so there’s only sound.) Soon Herzog puts one hand over his face, asks Palovak to turn the tape off, and removes the headphones. Palovak, looking at him, suddenly begins to weep. “Jewel,” Herzog says, in his signature, solemn growl, “you must never listen to this.” And Jewel—with a strange gravitas, like a woman taking a vow before an audience (which, literally, she is)—tells him: “I know, Werner. I’m never going to.” He suggests she destroy the tape. She agrees. End scene.
Herzog never lets us hear the tape—in fact, the film suggests that no one should hear it; sharing it would be too sensational or cynical. And yet, the scene comes off feeling a little sensational and cynical itself. I’ve never quite been sure how to read it. I’ve always wondered: Is Herzog being a responsible custodian of volatile material, or is he just feigning responsibility while still giving viewers a morbid thrill?
I wanted to know what he was thinking. And deep at the root of my question was, essentially, your question: How are we supposed to know, cameras in hand, whether we are shooting for morality or for virality?
Well, I managed to acquire Herzog’s email address a few years ago, and your question seemed, finally, to offer me a justification for writing him. So I did. I wanted to go that extra mile for you, to help you sort out your problem. Then again, let’s be honest, I also imagined what a nice “get” it would be for me to land a titan like Werner Herzog for this humble little column. So was I doing it for you? I thought I was. Wasn’t I? Even a little?
See? This is what life is: an unceasing onrush of decisions and calculations colliding with an indecipherable swirl of motives. We are all participants in two, often competing, projects—the stewardship of a functioning civic society and the stewardship of our own personal brands—and it’s sometimes hard to recognize where our true allegiances lie.
You get this. I know you do—it’s why you’re asking the question. The truth is, in these strained, explosive times, I believe documenting any altercations you witness is a moral good. We need to be watchful, to protect one another. We need to keep our cameras up, arrayed in a kind of crowdsourced Panopticon. Shoot video first, ask questions later.
But please do ask those questions before you post a video. Ask yourself, “Given how this confrontation ultimately played out, what good would this do?” Nine times out of 10, there will be no genuine need to make the footage public. And in that case, the only reason to share it would be the one you’re already rightly wary of: to bring some momentary, minuscule glory on yourself.
Herzog never wrote me back. And, frankly, I’m glad. I regretted the email as soon as I sent it. I was roping him in for the wrong reasons. I imagined him recognizing this instantly and growling at my name in his inbox: Jon, you must never email me again. Well, I know, Werner. I’m never going to.
This article appears in the August issue. Subscribe now.