Documentary filmmaker Garrett Scott, who died of a heart attack March 2 and was memorialized today at the New York Underground Film Festival at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, was one of documentary cinema’s most promising young directors. He really was just getting started. I never knew Scott, so my sadness is a viewer’s sadness, purely selfish: I miss him because I wanted to see what he and his regular codirector Ian Olds would do next. Their most recent work, Occupation: Dreamland, a bleak but humane account of the weeks he and Olds spent with the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah, Iraq, is the most down-to-earth nonfiction feature to emerge from this war, a movie that eschews soapboxing while letting chaotic and disconnected images make their own arguments. In the repertory house of my imagination, I’d like to show it on a double bill with The Battle of Algiers.
I really did get the sense that Scott was developing into an auteur, a director who was preoccupied with certain themes and would likely revisit them throughout his career. Chief among these was a “Frankenstein” sense of cause-and-effect—the notion that an individual whose life has been, in some sense, deformed by society tends to brood in the margins, gain self-awareness, recognize injustices that have been perpetrated against him and emotionally or physically rebel against his “creator,” whoever he considers that to be. You could sense that dynamic at play in Occupation: Dreamland, in the soldiers’ black-comedic bewilderment at being asked to sacrifice life and limb on behalf of their leaders’ delusions and scams (one soldier slags the profiteering of Dick Cheney’s former company, Halliburton, by declaring, “War is money”). You could see it even more clearly in Scott and Olds’ first feature, Cul-de-Sac: A Suburban War Story, about an aggrieved San Diego man who stole a tank and ripped through through the city.
Writing in New York Press, I said Scott’s movie illustrates the idea that “…certain chapters in American history have long-term repercussions we aren’t aware of until it’s too late…At first it seems a straightforward account of a 1995 rampage by suburban San Diego resident Shawn Nelson, an unemployed defense-industry worker, ex-soldier and methamphetamine abuser who stole a tank from a National Guard armory and drove it through his neighborhood, mashing cars and lampposts until cops took him down…[T]he documentary goes beyond clip-job exploitation, placing Nelson’s fury in a political, economic and social context. Newsreel footage of fat, happy San Diego in the ’50s and ’60s is juxtaposed with ’90s images of shuttered defense plants, jobless blue-collar suburbanites and police on patrol. Statements by cops, historians and real estate agents sketch the rise and fall of a Pentagon-fueled boomtown, then point out that amphetamine use first became common during World War II, when the U.S. government supplied the drug to servicemen. Some ex-soldiers who got work in defense plants after the war kept taking the drug so they could work longer hours and earn extra overtime. In the mid-’90s, the government contracts dried up, General Dynamics and their ilk fled San Diego, ’outsourcing’ their manufacturing to rival states and foreign countries and leaving neighborhoods full of loyal working-class Americans with nothing but unemployment checks, nostalgia and drugs. Each time Cul de Sac revisits Nelson’s low-speed tank chase, he seems less like a standard-issue nutjob loner and more like a military/industrial Frankenstein’s monster, haunted by (and hunted for) other people’s sins.”
For information on the still-in-the-works Garrett Scott Fund, which will disburse a prize to a documentary made in the spirit of Scott’s work, visit Anthony Kaufman’s blog.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.