Judge Adam Arseneau should never be given access to a tank.
A film by Garrett Scott.
Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story is the tale of Shawn Nelson from Claremont, California, a thirty-five-year-old who walked into his local National Guard armory and stole a tank. He drove the tank towards the city hall, crushing cars and lampposts, doggedly pursued by every police officer and helicopter in the city employ. The cops eventually took him down, but Shawn Nelson's bizarre rampage left a gaping hole in the community as his friends and family struggled to understand his actions. Also, the eighteen-foot mine shaft he had dug beneath his backyard in search of gold. Did we mention that?
It takes a certain kind of man to dig for gold in his own backyard. It takes a different kind of man to hire tweaking meth heads from his neighborhood to help him dig an eighteen-foot-deep shaft in his backyard, then steal a tank. The mystery of Shawn Nelson and his eccentricities is one that may never be solved, but I was a bit surprised that Cul de Sac seems disinterested in exploring it. We get the obligatory interviews with distraught friends and family, tearful bewilderment on their faces as they wonder why their insane meth-addled friend could be capable of anything unexpected, sure, but the film already has already come to its own conclusions about the root cause—and it plays out like a Michael Moore film.
When Cul de Sac isn't showing footage of Nelson driving a tank backwards through the streets of Southern California, it focuses on the town itself: Claremont, a predominantly white suburb of San Diego struggling with the decline of the military industrial complex that kept it gainfully employed following World War II. Like the automobile industry of Michigan, defense contractor General Dynamics employed a large amount of the working-class population, which enjoyed a high standard of living despite minimum education. After the Cold War ended, General Dynamics stopped building planes and missiles there, and the town dive-bombed into lower-class poverty and drug use.
This is the central theme of Cul de Sac, the decline of a once-great town turning its denizens into dejected shells of anxiety and financial poverty—and methamphetamine! Don't forget the meth. Not to sound callous, but it appears that a great majority of Nelson's friends and family have struggled with the drug in the past—some of them while on camera. Nelson was thirty-five, divorced, an Army veteran, addicted to meth, digging holes in his backyard looking for gold. He was a plumber by trade, but his equipment was stolen from his truck, and his utilities had been shut off. His house was in foreclosure, and his live-in girlfriend died of a drug overdose. So Shawn did exactly what any other person would do in his situation—he stole a tank.
Presented in full frame, Cul de Sac is pretty straightforward in terms of assembly; little more than your standard hodgepodge of interviews, stock footage and newsreels. A run-of-the-mill technical presentation: no cleanup of source material, muted colors, and a general lack of fidelity. Audio comes in simple stereo, and gets the job done. Bass response is minimal and dialogue is clear. In terms of extras, we get a twelve-page booklet with some essays on the historical context of the film and some rumination on the editing by the director Garrett Scott.
With a running time of less than 60 minutes, Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story barely scratches the surface on this strange story, suggesting and hinting at deeper themes the film never finds the time or ability to fully explore and present. Still, it is a fascinating story of human decline.
Tanks don't solve your problems, boys and girls.
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