The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

Cul-de-Sac In Context

In the winter of 1998, Garrett Scott was living in Oakland, working as a waiter and slowly putting together his first film about an unemployed plumber who stole a tank and rampaged across San Diego. Or rather, it was about California and the political economy of militarism. Or maybe it was about the media, drug addiction, insanity, and suburbia; or about America and deindustrialization.

Mostly it was a work in progress: a masterpiece yet to be, or a spectacular disaster, headed straight into a wall at high speed. Time would tell.

It was around then Garrett and I met. I had arranged a public lecture for Mike Davis at the college where I taught. Davis, of course, is the historian of Los Angeles and Southern Californian disasters. A large crowd of fans attended, among them a scraggly, squinty faced, blonde hipster named Garrett. He was dressed ’70s-vintage cowboy—jeans, checked shirt, big corduroy coat, wide furry collar—with a VHS trailer for his weird, unfinished film in hand.

There followed many a late night of conversation and drink. Sometimes I would crash out at Garrett’s spacious ground floor pad in Oakland, sleeping on a huge old couch next to his stand-up ashtray heaping with cigarette butts and spent matches. Garrett refused to empty the thing, joking that he wanted to shellac it; and so there the ashtray stood as some sort of death-art altar, part Duchamp readymade, part ad for the American Lung Association.

It was fitting to meet Garrett at a talk by Mike Davis, because Cul-de-Sac is heavily influenced by a time, a place, and a literature: The time was the 1990s, the place California, and the literature was the critical urbanism that revolved around the work of Davis, particularly his book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. For Garrett, and many others of us, City of Quartz had an electrifying impact. Published just before the L.A. riots of 1991, the book read like prophesy. In Davis’s work the sunny palm-lined streets of Southern California were not pretty and mindless, but sinister and tragic sites of class struggle, racial oppression, and crypto-authoritarian state repression. The name, Cul-de-Sac, is even an oblique reference to “Fortress L.A.,” the most influential chapter in City of Quartz.

Central to this documentary—and the thing which compelled Garrett, who had no training as a filmmaker, to take up the camera—is the video footage of the rampaging tank, stolen and driven by Shawn Nelson on May 17, 1995. The images are eerie and tragicomic. We watch and wait as the huge tank cruises down the peaceful suburban San Diego streets of Clairemont, occasionally toppling traffic lights and crushing parked vehicles, while above it follows a low flying helicopter capturing it all on video. Also crucial is the footage from the appalling, home-invasion style “live news report” from Nelson’s home.

These two pieces of footage and Garrett’s use of them are a comment on the aesthetics of a particular moment in history. Starting in the 1990s, politics (which were increasingly repressive) and video technology (which was increasingly cheap and abundant) came together and gave rise to what you might call a “reality” or evidentiary aesthetic which is typified in this type of shaky, grainy, “raw” footage.

We are now very accustomed to this language of video vérité, but step back and you realize it is the visual by-product of a repressive society—born of the institutions and technologies of social control: the military, the police, private security, surveillance, the 24/7 cable news. Home video from the “innocent bystander” is also part of this language, once it is sucked up as evidence by the courts and the media’s court of public opinion. Cul-de-Sac uses this reality aesthetic but turns it back upon itself by digging beneath the drama of the image and into the political economic history of the situation.

Recall the historical context of this film and the moment when the reality aesthetic came to the fore. The decade began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and then the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. Suddenly, the world-defining political antagonism between capitalism and socialism was gone. Francis Fukuyama became a household name by touting “the end of history.” And America became the sole unchallenged superpower.

The apex of that power was Operation Desert Storm—the first American invasion of Iraq. And that war brought with it a new role for “raw” video as America watched the greenish-gray screens of smart bombs and attack planes, many of which were made in California in places like Clairemont, the setting of Cul-de-Sac. This flow of grainy footage helped launch the 24-hour news cycle. CNN, now a rather stale brand, was then quite cutting-edge and took the lead in broadcast TV with its round-the-clock live coverage of the U.S. invasion. At one level, the war made the network, and at another, the network made the war.

Meanwhile, back home the social landscape of places like Clairemont was increasingly defined by inequality and police repression. In the early 1990s an epidemic of crack cocaine addiction and the first round of methamphetamine mayhem were just peaking. This was joined by a tremendous buildup in police repression, prosecutorial power, surveillance, and a huge campaign of prison building. As with the Gulf War, the domestic wars on drugs, crime, immigrants, and the homeless were heavily mediated by video.

It was in this context that the notion of news and documentary started giving way to what we now know as Reality TV. The Fox reality show America’s Most Wanted premiered in late 1988 and its fraternal twin Cops came on the air a year later. The Jerry Springer Show debuted in September 1991. These and many other shows relied heavily on raw video or its concocted facsimiles.

This new aesthetic proliferated in part due a chain of public spectacles all caught on video and then endlessly looped: the police beating of African-American motorist Rodney King; the L.A. riots caused by the officers’ acquittal; O. J. Simpson’s weird, low-speed car chase across a Southern Californian landscape. Cul-de-Sac invokes all these events and their video residue. When we watch the tank smashing up cars, we are watching a genre that includes CNN’s Gulf War, Cops, Rodney King, the riots, O. J.’s farcical flight, etc.

The conceit of reality video of course is that it shows the truth. But Cul-de-Sac digs deeper into the actual lives of the people who knew Shawn Nelson as well as into the larger historical context. In that way, Cul-de-Sac shows how reality video and news spectacle are ideology that obscures and confuses rather than reveals or explains.

But I digress. Cul-de-Sac is much more than a comment on the media. Its more substantial elements are a soulful reading of the Southern California landscape and the underlying processes of militarism and economic boom and bust which produced it.

Garrett was a Californian—a product of that automobile-dominated geography of sprawl, freeways, detached homes, and distant beaches—and this film carries the combination of affection and loathing that only a native son could muster.

Garrett’s father was raised in Clairemont and is now a judge in San Diego, and his mother still lives in the area. Garrett was born in Munich, but he was raised in Coronado, an upper-middle class suburb on the northwest side of San Diego. Growing up near the beach, Garrett became an excellent swimmer, playing water polo in high school and then at U.C. Santa Barbara. He worked as a lifeguard and saved people from drowning. To his eternal credit, Garrett was extremely modest about that. I pried a few stories from him but only learned later the real scope of his service. (As much as I love his filmmaking—one has to admit that saving actual people’s lives has a noble practicality that entertaining and educating audiences with one’s movies or writing or painting or music can’t really beat.)

Garrett was blond, smoked cigarettes, drank, enjoyed the good life, yet had the extremely defined muscular physique of an athlete. Below his handsome but often sleepy and sort of battered face, he was seriously “ripped”—a true So-Cal dude.

 But there was also something very dark and tormented about him. By the time he started working on Cul-de-Sac he had completed an M.F.A. in Creative Writing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I always thought that those couple of hard northern winters in a de-industrialized city gave Garrett some anti-Californian gravitas.

Whatever the case, Garrett was alienated from mainstream white San Diego’s world of sunshine, shopping, and status. In fact, that version of the rat race disgusted and infuriated him. His alienation gave him critical insight, humanity, and empathy. His empathy—not sympathy—shows through in the film in his interviews with Scott Nelson, Karen, the two Chucks, Fela, and even the Cop. The empathy operates not just at the level of Garrett—whom you catch glimpses of and can hear asking questions—being kind to Shawn Nelson’s circle of friends. But also because Garrett went beyond their specific and immediate conditions to explore the structural and historical aspects of their personal tragedies. He placed the small story of Clairemont into the larger story of American Empire.

Consider the numerous connections between Shawn’s personal distress and American militarism. He had learned to drive a tank in the army. His drug of choice, methamphetamine, was linked directly to U.S. war making in the Pacific. Like all of San Diego, the suburb of Clairemont depended upon industries—like General Dynamics, maker of the Tomahawk missile—that served the U.S. military. The withdrawal of these jobs, but not the drugs that make you work hard, leads to, well, building goldmines in the backyard.

Speaking of goldmines, in the film, notice Karen’s early mention of Shawn’s mineshaft, the 49ers, and “gold fever.” The Gold Rush is, of course, Anglo California’s origin myth. It was the state’s first great get-rich-quick, landscape-transforming, boom-and-bust. Cul-de-Sac uses that “tweeker” project, the mineshaft, to make larger comments about the economic logic of the California landscape. There is, after all, a direct line from the Gold Rush to the tank. After the gold boom there followed silver, timber, guano, railroads, agriculture, real estate, defense, and high-tech. But every capitalist boom has its bust. And every crash, its human casualties—people like Shawn Nelson.

If America were less fixated on how war, weaponry, and the political economy of Clairemont were different, if there were high-paying jobs for skilled tradesmen, would Shawn Nelson have been trapped in his drug-and rum-addled fantasy? One can never reduce individual biography to larger social structures, but it is also clear that individuals can never be abstracted from the larger patterns of history. Industries die, or move away, landscapes and local economies decline and collapse, and in that process some portion of the population is cast off as social wreckage, even in sunny San Diego.

Watching the film again in 2011, I am struck by how prescient it is in capturing a desperation and confusion that seems so particular to our current moment. Consider the familiar themes: foreclosure, unemployment, addiction, war, and the Tea-Party-style-left-meets-right paranoia and confusion of these downwardly mobile, latently rebellious members of the white working class.

Garrett’s success in weaving together the connections between individual biography, history, and larger social structures is part of what makes Cul-de-Sac a unique and brilliant film.

Like the landscape that produced him, Garrett burned bright and fast, and then crashed. In 2003, he moved to Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Rachael Rakes (now an editor of the Rail’s film section). Then he and Ian Olds, his collaborative partner, the editor of Cul-de-Sac, traveled to Iraq and made their second film Occupation: Dreamland, about the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah and the work of soldiering. I overlapped with them in Iraq and in a few ways got to help out a little and watch the making of another fine film.

By 2005, Garrett and Ian were planning to film together in Afghanistan. Garrett was also working on a project about San Francisco city politics in the 1970s, focused on Reverend Jim Jones and his poisoned Kool-Aid massacre in Guyana. And Occupation had been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.

To find out if they would win, Garrett and Ian headed out west. Ian went north to see his folks in Sebastopol and Garrett went south to visit his family in Coronado. They were to meet in Hollywood for the awards. Two days before the ceremony, Garrett went to swim in one of the local pools where he had trained as a kid and teenager. During his laps the lifeguard looked away for a second and then looked back. And all of the sudden Garrett was at the bottom of the pool. He had died of cardiac arrest brought on by a congenital heart fibrillation. He was 37. The next day, Occupation won its award. Ian accepted the prize, alone, and on Garrett’s behalf. 


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues