Garrett Scott

07Mar06

I found out yesterday that my friend, filmmaker Garrett Scott, died suddenly in California on March 2nd. Garrett’s documentary about American soldiers stationed in Fallujah, Operation: Dreamland, had been nominated for an Independent Spirit award and he was in California to attend the awards ceremony.

Garrett was one of the warmest, closest, most comradely people I’ve ever known, and he was a committed and brilliant documentarian. I was introduced to him by my friend Sam Witt when I lived in Oakland, and we used to meet often at such local Oakland haunts as The Stork Club or The Ruby Room, staying out late to discuss writing, politics, film making, to smoke and drink, and simply be comradely together. On the night of my 29th birthday, Sam, Garrett, and I closed down The Ruby Room and then walked to my apartment where we stayed up all night talking with the window open to let the quiet, cold city air in. Garrett was this way — he was the kind of person who you wanted to spend time with, and he was the kind of person who, when you were with him, would make the importance of time disappear because the spontaneous joy of shared intelligence, of thinking together in emotions and words and the direct humanness of contact, that was all that was important when you were with him. He had a hug and a handhold that were so straightforward and true that every meeting and every parting with Garrett felt like a full world of being together.

When I met Garrett he was debating whether or not to continue with graduate studies in literature, but he decided instead to pursue, almost single-handedly, his desire to make a documentary about Shawn Nelson, the San Diego native who drove a tank through the city and was shot to death by the police when the tank ran out of fuel on the freeway. Garrett funded this work by working as a waiter at one of the more upscale restaurants on College Avenue and the result — Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story — is a tour de force that ties together San Diego’s historical position within the military industrial complex, the way in which capital flight can destroy communities, and the introduction and circulation of methamphetamine in the U.S. (which he links directly to U.S. military practices in WWII). His interviews of the friends and family of Shawn Nelson are empathetic in the extreme and the camera eye is always maintained with an aspect of the deepest respect at moments where other directors would have taken cheap shots and played them for laughs. By the end of the documentary the story of Shawn Nelson — whose actions were portrayed in the media as a kind of unfathomable, undirected lunacy — in unpacked in its proper social/political context in such a way that the figure of the lone madman is completely demystified. It’s an incredible documentary, and even more so when you take into account the fact that it was Garrett’s first major work as a documentarian.

There was a period of time when I didn’t see Garrett so often because he was showing Cul de Sac around the country, and because he was spending time in several different cities trying to decide what his next move would be. When I did see him next, it was an accidental meeting on a BART train that was headed toward San Francisco. It was then that he told me that he’d been in Iraq with Christian Parenti, who was doing serious, dangerous, and important investigative reporting there at the time. In fact, it turns out that Garrett was present at one of the first major IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attacks directed against the U.S. military. I had read Pirenti’s account in The Nation, but I didn’t know that Garrett was also there at the time until I talked with him on the train. It was at this time that he mentioned that he would be going back to Iraq to try to do some work on a new documentary, though he wasn’t quite sure what the shape of this documentary would be, since at that point no one was really sure what the shape of the war itself would turn out to be. But we both knew it was very dangerous work and, since he would be leaving the Bay Area soon, our good-bye was more serious, and emphatic, and deeply felt than it otherwise would have been. Of course, I did see Garrett again, in New York where he ended up settling down. He had returned from Iraq with film in the can for what would become the extremely important Occupation: Dreamland. And that’s what I’d like to say about Garrett’s work — it was important. Garrett’s work, all of it, was a deeply personal attempt to discuss and expose the intersection between militarism in the U.S. and the kinds of psychic and cultural violence that are becoming ever more deeply embedded in U.S. society. Growing up in San Diego he was surrounded by the workings of the military industrial complex and he wanted to do what he could to put an end to this fundamental type of barbarism.

The way in which politics played themselves out in the realm of the everyday was a central subject of Garrett’s work and his thinking, and the way he lived his life was a response to these concerns. He lived his life with art, with joy, and with the notion that a community of friends is a kind of consecration. The promesse de bonheur was no phantom for him, but a formula for living now. I don’t have it with me — it’s packed away in storage — but the photograph I have of Garrett that I most want to remember right now is a photograph taken at Le Bateau Ivre after one of Sam Witt’s readings. Garrett’s hair is longer in this photo, and his curls drop down on both sides of his face, and because of the light his hair is glowing like it’s on fire, burning with a kind of Blakean intensity. He was absolutely beautiful and he was impossible not to love, and I loved him too, and will miss him profoundly.

Filmmaker Magazine tribute to Garrett.
Indiewire tribute to Garrett.
Village Voice review of Occupation: Dreamland.
WSWS review of Occupation: Dreamland.
Kaffeine Buzz review of Occupation: Dreamland.
MP3 of interview with Garrett Scott.
Buzzflash interview with Garrett Scott.
SF Chronicle obituary.

And here’s Sam Witt’s moving tribute to Garrett:

Garrett Scott was my brother, my friend, and my inspiration. Though I am a poet, and not a film maker, I have been and will continue to be influenced and inspired by Garrett’s work. His two very different films, “Cul de Sac” and “Occupation Dreamland,” were lovely, lyrical, and empathic meditations on war, politics, economics, family, and locality versus global economic and political trends, which exert such pressure on the lives of the people who populate his amazing filmic psycho-scapes–and indeed, on our own lives. Garrett was a terrific, kind, and generous human being, generous to a fault, yet fraught with all the right kinds of tensions, with a great sense of outrage and injustice when appropriate and at the same time an uncanny sense of the innerworkings of history, its cunning, its logic, and its endlessly self-generative set of variables. I will never forget Garrett’s near ruthless sense of inquiry, his overpowering desire to know and to express with unfailing honesty what he had discovered, while conducting his research and his interviews with the utmost sense of empathy and understanding for the people, often in compromised and dangerous situations, to whom he gave a forum to tell their stories with wit, grace and at times all the necessary requisite desperation. Garrett pulled no punches in his films; they are unflaggingly honest, yet imbued with a strong sense of purpose and understanding, without once ever being contrived, preachy, or possessed in any way of an ulterior motive. Garrett Scott was, simply put, a secretary for the dispossessed and a great navigator of the mysterious interplay between war, violence, systems of finance, territory, and so much more. His impressive body of work–though tragically interrupted–will always be a constant source of experiment and discovery for me. Garrett, you taught and showed me so much, and communicated with such patience and pleasure, that the scope, depth and possibilities of my own work has been enormously and irrevocably changed, forever. Garrett, you were such an enormous soul, so kind and sensitive, with such wit, warmth, and unbelievable loyalty and curiosity, that I feel I have lost a brother today, a fellow collaborator in the work of the human spirit. I can only hazard a guess at why those of us who were fortunate enough to know Garrett and his work have to contemplate such an unfair and untimely end to it. I will stop short of pointing out what an injustice Garrett’s death is, not because I don’t believe that, but because I am trying to understand for myself and others that there was no written law that any of us would be promised any time at all here, that the great privilege of living for any period of time on this troubled and beautiful planet, which Garrett and his work so wonderfully engaged, is miracle enough. To quote the Talmud, better to live one hour in this life than all eternity in the world to come. Garrett’s example proves the wisdom of that saying. His legacy lives on in all of us who are wise enough to follow the great example he set for us–simply put, that the act of trying to understand each other and document our triumphs, our failings, and our sufferings is, in the end, the only measure by which we shall be judged, both as people and as societies. I simply cannot articulate the enormity of the loss I feel today. My thoughts, tears, and pain aside, I am reduced to simple awe at what Garrett Scott was able to accomplish in fifteen short years, at his dignity and intelligence, I will never forget him, neither as a human being, a friend, nor an artist, and I shall always be overwhelmed by his presence, even now that it is gone.

Peace, dear brother; sleep on, but let your work continue to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable…

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One Response to “Garrett Scott”

  1. 1 Jim Kober

    Sorry to hear about your friend.

    I do like your blog.

    Again, sorry.
    Jim Kober


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