Movie Review: 2002 NYUFF: Cul De Sac, Come Alive, Little Flags
Though the 9th New York Underground Film Festival showcased the usual mix of decadent trash, there was also a definite political bent to the films selected this year. This was a deliberate programming move on the NYUFF’s behalf. However, was it just a coincidence that there were so many good political films to choose from or is there a conscious collective shift among underground filmmakers that they are taking a more serious look at this post-9/11 world? Or maybe having a conservative president again is drawing out the political interests of indie filmmakers, who are traditionally a liberal and/or progressive bunch anyway.
So, the first collection of short films I saw at NYUFF was of this political/sociological bent. For the very first, very short film, director Dylan Griffin had to suffer a highly traumatic event: His Come Alive, a minute and a half Super-8 piece, screened without its sound. When the film screened correctly a second time, with music in place, it was a clever commentary on the saddest result of commercialism. As the camera pans over the torrent of garbage littering a beautiful Mexican beach, an old Pepsi jingle plays on the soundtrack.
Next up was Jem Cohen‘s Little Flags, a meditative B&W cinema verite short documenting an NYC tickertape victory parade. I’m not totally sure what was being celebrated — the result of my horrendous memory or was it not mentioned in the film? — but it may have been the end of the Gulf War. What I found truly unsettling about the film, however, and this may be my own warped perception, but the amount of garbage on the lower Manhattan streets reminded me of the debris strewn over the same area after the twin towers came down. The film also featured a new soundtrack by Fugazi, which isn’t surprising since Jem is a longtime collaborator with the band, including the feature-length documentary Instrument.
But the centerpiece of “Cul de Sac” was a featurette documentary Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story, an in-depth look at the story behind the guy, Shawn Nelson, who stole an Army tank in San Diego a few years ago and drove it around his suburban neighborhood. But the film is also really about much more than this specific incident. Director Garrett Scott explores the themes of poor community planning, what happens after a boom economy goes bust and the nature of social interaction in uncertain times.
Though Cul De Sac was an exceptionally insightful, thought-provoking piece of work, it would have been extremely easy to have let the material degenerate into screwball comedy. The scenes of Nelson on his 30-minute rampage — taken directly from TV news footage — would be funny if only the incident didn’t end so tragically. When Nelson eventually got the tank stuck on a highway median, police climbed on top of the vehicle, popped the top and shot Nelson dead.
Nelson and his neighbors are also quite the characters. While there’s no actually video of Nelson, we do learn that he was a highly unstable person. His most quirky character trait was his hobby of digging a gold mine in his backyard. It’s apparent that Nelson was in need of serious mental treatment, but he didn’t have the support system to tell him he needed the help. It’s quite devastating, to see a community ravaged by the proliferation of crystal meth.
Although taking an “I blame society” attitude to explain a person’s aberrant behavior is a cop-out, director Scott does make a good argument about how ill-conceived and hasty community building and the vagaries of economics can contribute to a failing culture, that history and social engineering has a direct bearing on how we live as individuals.
Interspersed with the story of Shawn Nelson is a history of San Diego, a town that prospered during World War II and the Cold War and has subsequently fallen on hard times. When the defense industry was jumping, San Diego was a hotbed of good jobs and good times, but is now just a shell of it’s former self. A clever comparison is made when footage from old promotional films about the rise of San Diego is shown alongside images of a bombed out Europe after WWII.
For a somewhat short film, Cul De Sac covers a lot of ground and masterfully weaves together a tapestry of complex ideas.
Watch the Cul De Sac: A Suburban War Story trailer: