Shawn Nelson's battle was at once specific and abstract, as he articulated his particular anger at the "government" and embodied a pervasive sense of loss as well.
"He was having fun, is that what it was? Just going for a joy ride?" Scott Nelson seems almost to wince when asked this question. "I don't know," he says, polite even in his confusion and pain. Pondering why his brother Shawn, a 35-year-old plumber, took an M60 tank from an Army facility and drove it through San Diego one day in May 1995, Scott turns near tearful. "He was sick and tired of screaming, trying to get some attention," Scott says, "Thank God no one got hurt. I don’t know how: 23 minutes driving around crushing vehicles, 23 minutes."
In fact, as recalled in Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story, someone did get hurt. Shawn was shot and killed by police, an astounding scene captured by local news cameras. Garrett Scott and Ian Olds' excellent 2002 film -- which screens 26 April at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Olds -- considers how this might have happened, how Nelson came to his state of despair, how San Diego was the place for it, and how his community responded.
This community is variously defined, partly by neighbors and friends themselves, and partly by academics (a geographer and an urban designer), observers who situate San Diego in a historical context. A postwar industrial mecca, San Diego appears in an old promotional film as "a city of dreams, dreams that are fulfilled." In Clairemont, where the Nelsons lived, General Dynamics provided what seemed endless employment opportunities, housing in tracts was inexpensive, and families looked forward to living happily ever after. "When I was a kid growing up here, this was the most beautiful place there was," says Shawn's friend Chuck Childers. "Karma, San Diego. It was bitchin'. Neighborhood safe. You could leave the keys in the ignition to your car and never had to worry about it. Never had to lock your front door."
All this changed, of course, with the Reagan '80s and the variously declining U.S. economy. As Cul de Sac uses Nelson's story to consider how, it anticipates the broader-based social and political dysfunctions that characterize America today. The film structures this analysis through various observations on Shawn's tragedy -- people who knew him consider how he became depressed, how he sought his own American Dream in the gold mine he dug in his backyard, and how his use of methamphetamine might have been as symptomatic as it was causal. If solutions remain elusive, the problems loom ever larger.
Childers remembers that Shawn told him, "One of these days, Chuck, I'm gonna take a tank and I'm gonna drive it to the city's hall, on the steps and demand live TV, so I can tell my statement." Though he never had the chance to speak, his frustration is vividly etched into the news chopper footage of the tank ramming down suburban streets, plowing down lampposts, and then heading onto the highway. The chaos was vivid and memorable. The very sound of the chopper was horrifying, as one neighbor notes the "terrible noise, mostly the helicopters." On hearing it, she says, "I ran out the front door. I saw the whole street up there was in pieces. It was like a war zone."
Nelson's battle was at once specific and abstract, as he articulated his particular anger at the "government" (which he said harassed him over his gold mine claim), and embodied a pervasive sense of loss as well. San Diego police officer George Eliseo takes the filmmaker on a tour of the neighborhood, pointing out houses that fell into disrepair and explaining how families lost their footing. "The classic thing that happens here," he says, "The mom passes away, the house goes to a son and a daughter, both drug users." The story tends to repeat, he says, as kids fall into drug use and the houses become hangouts instead of homes. "It just seems that certain ethnic groups prefer certain drugs," says Eliseo, "Around here, lower income whites prefer crystal meth."
One of Nelson's neighbors and fellow meth users, Karen Rowlands, tells her story and what she recalls of his as if in fast motion. Shawn had men and women digging his hole, she says, and as they tweaked and worked, they expected to learn to plumb, to come out with a trade. At first the hole was impressive, some 25 feet deep and still going. But then, she adds, "It was obvious he wasn't gonna go nowhere with that hole!"
The hole becomes an object of some fascination for a local Live 9 news reporter, who leads his camera operator through Nelson's house and into the backyard. Here, the reporter pesters nelson's ex roommate Tim Wyman with questions, which become especially excited when a woman arrives on the scene and tells the camera crew to leave. "Are you in fear of your life or any kind of reaction heavy duty with any people?" asks the reporter. Wyman shakes his head, composed in the face of the reporter's whirling chaos. "I just wanted everybody to know Shawn wasn’t a bad guy, he wasn’t."
This possibility, that Shawn wasn't a bad guy, that he wasn't deviant but was instead representative, not different but instead the same, may be hard to absorb. But as Cul de Sac makes clear, it makes a terrible and compelling sense.