Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 22 May 2005
Source Micro Films DVD
Troy Hurtubise believes that he will one day die at the hands of a grizzly bear. Having already survived a close encounter with a grizzly while hiking in the Canadian Rockies as a teenager, Hurtubise has since devoted the remainder of his adult life to designing and building a suit that can withstand the most violent of bear attacks. What becomes clear while watching Project Grizzly, however, is that despite having committed so much time, money, and effort towards his obsession, the bear Hurtubise is trying to protect himself from most does not reside “out there,” but rather can be found tucked away inside his own heart and mind, behind a suit of machismo armor as thick and hyperbolized as the one he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars constructing out of chain mail and Kevlar.
Fitting Troy Hurtubise into a pop psychology mold is a tempting one, if only because Hurtubise himself seems unaware of how conveniently his neuroses plays out in relation to the bear that he hopes will one day attack (and in his darkest of unspoken wishes, kill) him. Hurtubise refers to the grizzly that spared his life as the “Old Man,” which is fitting, since in Hurtubise’s mind, the mysterious nature of bears equates to the mysterious nature of fathers. Papa Hurtubise is never seen in the film (interestingly, neither is Hurtubise’s own wife and children), but the legend of Hurtubise Senior is made clear by the ways in which Troy speaks of him. In Troy’s eyes, his father is someone who could never be lived up to, someone whose legend preceded him and made those around him seem smaller. Not only is Project Grizzly the name of Hurtubise’s ongoing effort to construct a suit capable of surviving a bear attack, but it is also an attempt by Hurtubise to project all that is unsavory and dysfunctional about his relationship with his father onto a would-be encounter with an angered grizzly bear.
The suit Hurtubise builds in the film, the Ursus Mark VI, is a curious creation for a variety of reasons. Traditionally, the point of being an adventurer is to gain a sense of freedom and a feeling of exploration and discovery about the mysteries of the world. Hurtubise’s idea of adventure, on the other hand, is to trap himself in an immobile suit, incapable of seeing or feeling what is happening around him, all in an attempt to recreate and diffuse the impact of an experience he’s already had. The relationship between mobility and immobility is touched upon throughout Project Grizzly, but it is while Hurtubise is in his bear suit that one begins to understand the metaphoric relationship between the performance suit of masculinity Hurtubise wears in his daily life and the suit he has developed in defense of his greatest fear of all, facing the “Old Man.” Hurtubise’s suit can keep the person inside it safe from a bear attack, but it also does not allow for any kind of touching or embracing from those outside it, any kind of mobility or expression from the person inside it, nor can the emotional state of the person inside the suit be properly conveyed. At one point in the film, Hurtubise panics and screams as he and the suit begin to sink into mud. All that can be heard by those around him is a faint wail.
The sexual elements of Project Grizzly are also worth mentioning, especially in relation to Hurtubise’s almost a-sexual presentation of himself. Despite being uber-macho and relentlessly masculine, Hurtubise is revealed as someone who seems deeply uncomfortable with his own sexuality and therefore is confused by his relationship to the bear he is hoping will attack him. Hurtubise clearly regards grizzly bears as male opponents, and yet unbeknownst to him, most bears that attack are female, often while trying to protect their young from danger. That Hurtubise’s project is essentially one of seduction, in which he hopes to bait male bears into attacking him, is further complicated by a scene in which Hurtubise is seen walking up to a bar while in the bear suit, only to be beaten with pool cues and bats by a group of bikers. The scene is staged, but it nonetheless points to underlying themes of homophobia and sadomasochism. Combined, the various themes of sexuality presented throughout Project Grizzly continue a long-standing tradition of the eroticized bear in Canadian nature fiction.
Peter Lynch’s style of filmmaking, in which modalities of the Western (Lynch calls his film a “Northern”), science fiction (Hurtubise thought of building his bear suit after watching Robocop), and hinterland/National Film Board documentaries are combined in an attempt to subvert the tropes and existing notions surrounding the genres being explored, by mimicking each genre in an exaggerated way, serves as an apt counterpoint to Hurtubise’s own relationship to existing notions of Canadiana and what it means to be Canadian. By presenting himself as a borderline caricature of a hinterland male, while at the same time choosing to confront, rather than embrace, the Canadian wilderness and the fiercest animals it contains, I am left wondering if Hurtubise considers himself to be a part of the myths of masculinity and Canadiana which surround him, or if his relationship to both Canada and himself are as contentious and damaged as his relationship with the father he refuses to stand up to. At least, not while outside of a bear suit.