San Diego 'Garrett Scott and Ian Olds," announced the actor Willem Dafoe after opening the envelope. The two had been chosen for the Truer Than Fiction Award, given at this year's Independent Spirit Awards, broadcast March 4 on the Independent Film Channel. They had won for their documentary, Occupation: Dreamland, a portrait of life in the 82nd Airborne, stationed in Fallujah, Iraq. But only Olds ascended the stage to accept the award.
"I may have a hard time getting through this," began Olds. "I don't know how many of you know, but two days ago my directing partner, Garrett Scott, died of a heart attack at the age of 37.... I didn't want to come, but I came for him." Olds faltered; the crowd broke into applause. When he spoke again, Olds praised Scott's mind and heart and then concluded with this story: "One of the soldiers in the film called me last night and said, 'You know, we've been taught not to trust anybody with a camera or a microphone' -- and this was a guy with politics far different than Garrett and myself -- 'but I knew I could trust you guys. I could trust Garrett.' That would mean a lot to Garrett -- probably more than this award.... I accept this award on his behalf, and in his honor."
Garrett Scott died on March 2, while swimming in the municipal pool in his hometown of Coronado. A memorial service was held on March 11 at St. Paul's Methodist Church in Coronado, followed by a reception at the home of his mother Lynn and then a wake aboard the William D. Evans at the Bahia Resort Hotel. The night before, a group of Scott's family, friends, and loved ones -- from his youth in Coronado, from his years in San Francisco and New York, and even from among the soldiers whose lives he put on film -- gathered at the Golden Hill home of author Mike Davis.
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"Garrett's Bay Area friends are some of my closest friends," explains Davis. "When David Reid called me and told me what happened, I said, 'We have plenty of space. Let everybody come.' People needed somewhere to meet and decompress a little before whatever they're doing tomorrow."
The walls of Davis's cozy, well-kept home, which he shares with his wife Alessandra Moctezuma and their young children, bear testimony to his sociopolitical leanings and concerns. A framed poster depicts a Russian worker rising up over a gaggle of fattened plutocrats; another urges viewers to "Protest the bombing of Madrid -- stop the Fascist slaughter of Spanish women and children"; still another reads, "Marc Antonio fights for you. Re-elect Marc Antonio -- vote row C, American Labor Party." Besides the politically minded art, there are two movie posters bearing the name of Moctezuma's great-uncle, Carlos López Moctezuma. "He was the Jack Palance of the Mexican cinema," says Davis. "He made over a hundred movies -- he was the bad guy with the mustache."
"Get some food and grog," Davis instructs the guests as they knot together in the front hall. In the kitchen is a table bearing loaves of bread, two green salads, potato salad, rotisserie chicken, and sliced strawberries. A nearby table offers Corona beer, Pillar Box Red wine, and tequila. Later, white wine and a bottle of Dewar's will appear.
The first arrivees are Scott's Coronado friends, people who grew up within a few minutes' walk of his house, went to high school with him, played water polo with him. The guys are generally tall and robust, clad in sweaters, polo shirts, striped button-downs. "You had to work your way into his fold to be accepted, which was difficult to do," recalls Evan -- but apparently once you were in, you were in. Scott didn't leave his Coronado life behind when he set out to become an artist. Evan and Kasey saw him a few months ago in San Francisco, where he had a showing of his film. Matt had hung out with Scott while he was working on his first film, the 2002 documentary Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story (about which, more later). And Jason had hooked up with him in New York a while after Scott had moved there with his longtime girlfriend Rachel.
"Everybody said that the idea that he would expire in Coronado was just sort of shocking," says Jason of Scott. "After traveling to Iraq several times, Afghanistan... There's a kind of poetic irony to it that's really strange."
"It was amazing how he was honing his skills," says Jason. "It's so tragic -- not just the personal loss." Scott had been planning to head north after his visit to Coronado and the Independent Spirit Awards to work on a film about the San Francisco political scene in the 1970s. "He was really passionate about trying to delve into that whole mystery."
"How Jim Jones was connected to all the power players in the California legislature," adds Matt. Once, Jones had been a political player. But then, "they ran Jones out of the housing authority. His ideas were too radical; he wanted to build projects in Pacific Heights. When he started his church, suddenly no one knew him. Garrett wanted to peel back the layers."
Robbie, wearing a brown zip-up sweatshirt with white piping, was not from Coronado -- he had worked with Scott on Cul De Sac, which got produced in Oakland. "A bunch of us have been talking, saying, 'It would be such a great thing to keep the San Francisco project going, in honor of Garrett.' But you kind of step back a minute, and you realize that what made Garrett's films was, you've got to have his brain."
"The thing about Garrett," says UC Davis lecturer Jayne Walker, here with her husband David Reid, "is that he was so fiercely intelligent -- he had this highly trained mind, but fortunately for the world, he didn't want to go on and be an academic."
The poet Sam Witt, who befriended Scott during Scott's grad-school days in Wisconsin, elaborates. Though Scott's chosen field of study was English literature, "he was studying Prop 13, which froze the real estate tax in California, and the effect it had on home ownership. That was the basis of everything -- he had this interest in really fundamental things like the housing market." When Shawn Nelson stole a tank and rode it to his death through Clairemont in 1995, Scott heard the story and understood that "even in that insanity, there was context, there were patterns, and there was meaning. It wasn't just that Nelson was on speed -- there were all kinds of historical, economic, and cultural circumstances that were brought to bear, that created this pressure on people's lives.
"Due to cuts in the military," continues Witt, "Clairemont had become a white ghetto. By talking to Nelson's friends, his former girlfriend, his brother, the cop who killed him, Garrett figured out that what these people were actually losing was a sense of generational stability. They had lost their careers. Many of Nelson's friends were either recovering drug addicts or active drug addicts. Garrett knew intuitively that he could use the tank ride to glue this stuff together because it was flashy, it was dramatic, it was intense." It made for a record people might notice. "Garrett used to say, 'A society is only as good as the records it keeps -- and we're not keeping any records.' "
The resultant documentary, says Nation writer Christian Parenti, "is really subtle. I taught college in San Francisco while I was working on my Ph.D., and I taught Garrett's film. He takes the idea of this guy stealing a tank and uses that to burrow into a whole set of questions that, at first glance, seem too academic to attract anyone's interest. Questions like the role of military production in the production of the landscape of California...the rise and decline of communities in Southern California. And he does it all so seamlessly. History was brought to bear, but not in a didactic mode -- just sort of suggested, thrown into the mix."
Parenti met Scott while "organizing an event at which Mike Davis was speaking. Garrett showed up, and he had the trailer for this movie. I was working on my first book [The Freedom, an account based on Parenti's reporting from Iraq]. We became friends, and we ended up going to Iraq together. I wasn't part of the production on Occupation: Dreamland, but I was with them."
"Them," of course, refers to Scott and his codirector, Ian Olds. Olds met Scott in San Francisco when Scott was "sort of stalled out on his project. My roommate at the time grew up in San Diego and knew Garrett." Olds and his roommate were working as film editors. "Garrett brought over this transcript of the material that he'd shot for Cul De Sac, sort of organized like a script, but not really. He had no film training whatsoever. My roommate wasn't available to help, but I read the thing and was sort of moved by what it was. But it wasn't yet a film, and I said, 'Hey, I'd like to work on this with you,' and he said okay. We figured it out as we went. The friendship came out of that, and then we came together to do Occupation: Dreamland."
Olds joined in the praises for Scott's intellect; in particular, his genuine curiosity about others. It was the quality that allowed Scott to win the trust of his subjects, he said. "People knew he wasn't asking them questions to win their confidence in order to make them say something useful. He was actually interested in who they were. People felt the difference."
Like Scott's friends Jason and Robbie, Olds mourns the loss of what was yet to be done. "We had a whole body of work that we were thinking of making, one that had some continuous ideas, a way of thinking about the world. After the invasion of Iraq, it seemed like a different world," one that would involve "new kinds of wars, new kinds of motivations, and new consequences." The two had planned an Afghanistan project, which, like the others, would reflect Scott's interest in "power and history and individuals who are caught up in it and are unaware of these structures. In the Afghanistan project, we were looking at the shape of power at the edge of an empire -- the U.S. exerting power abroad and the ramifications it has in that environment. There are NGO workers who have become mercenaries. There was a guy claiming to be with Special Forces who was actually a private guy running his own private jail. There's this kind of breakdown. The idea was to do three or four character studies" that would paint a portrait of the region and the forces shaping it.
Scott's interests and San Diego heritage put the writer David Reid in mind of Edmund Wilson's "Jumping-Off Place," a story Wilson wrote for the New Republic during the Depression. "At the time, San Diego had the highest suicide rate in the country. Wilson ends with maybe the best paragraph he ever wrote. He says something like, 'Here, under the empty California sun, those people so long told to go west to prosper and be healthy come to the end of their resources. They go out into the municipal golf course and stab themselves to death. They drive into their garages and turn on the gas. They take rat poison. They jump into the bay and drown within sight of the great battleships that set out so long ago to conquer the Hawaiian Islands.' Garrett would have loved the piece -- it's got imperialism and personal psychosis."
"I do think that growing up in Coronado was not neutral," adds Jayne Walker. "That whole military culture was something that he eventually had to address. But the thing that totally amazes me is his great affection for the troops in Occupation: Dreamland. It's not really an antiwar film -- although, the way it comes out, it is -- but that's not what he set out to do. He wanted to show these guys who got caught up in an intolerable situation. The portraits are so rich and so complex. [I'm] old enough to remember the way the troops were thought about in Vietnam. He didn't want to do anything that went anywhere near that. They come across as such sweet boys."
One of those boys is Joseph Wood, the soldier-turned-fashion-student recently profiled in New York magazine. Wood joined the Army "before 9/11. I needed college money, I wanted to get away from home, and I wanted to do some kind of crazy experience -- jump out of helicopters." His enthusiasm for military life survived boot camp but perished soon after his arrival in the 82nd Airborne. By the time he met Scott and Olds, he was feeling disillusioned and ready to get out.
"I was against the war," he says, "and some of the buddies I lived with were too. We would talk about it amongst ourselves. But once Ian and Garrett came over, it was good to be able to talk to someone external. Right off the bat, they felt really trustworthy. They were able to kind of talk me through things, help me articulate what I was thinking. I didn't know about Halliburton. They gave me some reading material; we discussed it a lot in the first couple of days. It was great, because a lot of the guys in the military are like myself, and they have no political frame of mind. And with the camera in front of me, it was a new way of speaking. It wasn't like preaching to the choir; it was like telling someone."
Meeting Scott and Olds is one of the reasons Wood doesn't regret going into the Army. "I had a lot of good times and met a lot of great people. But it seems like it was meant for me to be in the Army -- this whole road I went down, one thing after another. It's like everything kind of worked out perfectly for me to be in that certain place in time to meet these guys. I had the privilege of living with them and getting to be friends with them. And, of course, moving to New York City and being around them. Our friendship grew; I didn't look at them like these guys I met in Iraq; it was like these guys I've always known."
These were Scott's friends, and they praise his friendship with the same emotion as they praise his work. Matthew knew Scott in San Francisco, "when he was sort of kicking around the idea of Cul De Sac in his head. I just remember long discussions, and we became fast, fast friends. The night before he died, I was sitting at work telling a friend of mine about my friend Garrett, about his film. I realized I was telling this person how proud I was to have someone like Garrett in my life." His girlfriend Rachel met him when she showed Cul De Sac as part of a film series. What attracted her? "His intellect" is her first response. But then she adds, "The fact that he would meet you and be, like, 'Hello.' " By way of illustration, she wraps her fingers around my arm and squeezes gently, fixing me with an engaging stare. "His absolute warmth."