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Film Review: Tower

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

On a hot, sunny morning in August 1966 in Austin, Texas, a young man climbed to the outdoor observation deck of the iconic tower of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas and began shooting at random people below with a sniper rifle. Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent former Marine sharpshooter with violent tendencies and a brain tumour that may have exacerbated such issues, killed 14 people (not including his mother and his wife, whom he had murdered the night before) and wounded 31 more before he was shot dead by police.

Were it to happen tomorrow, Whitman’s killing spree would shock but not surprise America and the world, occupy a news cycle or two and inflame long-simmering political and social debates (gun control, militarism, treatment of mental health, any number of potential identity-politics flashpoints). The trauma might overwhelm those closest to its epicentre, gutting the lives of victims and their loved ones and shaking the communities where they occur. But then, all too quickly, it would slide into the annals of the collective memory, its dead decorously mourned, its heroes propagandistically lionized, its applicable lessons summarily suffocated under memorializing stone. American public discourse has thoroughly ritualized mass shootings, conditioned reaction and response to them, and rendered them as a common feature of the social landscape. Mass shootings have become as American as Chevrolets, Coca-Cola, the crack of a baseball bat on a summer afternoon, and highways stretching to the horizon. They might not evoke a sense of pride (even the self-styled “patriots” of the pro-gun right have not such atrophied souls as that), but they have certainly achieved a perverse but stable level of tolerance and acceptance, with the social errors they point back to removed from cleansing reform at a protective distance.

But in August 1966, a troubled loner slaughtering his fellow citizens still held a seismic charge of disorienting unfamiliarity. Keith Maitland’s truly remarkable re-created document of the terrible events of a half-century before, Tower, brilliantly and artistically captures the hyper-real unreality of bearing witness in the eye of a shooting-spree storm by depicting that perspective in a form of hyper-real unreality: rotoscopic animation. Animating over filmed actors playing principal victims and players in the saga on the re-created stage of the mid-’60s University of Texas campus, Maitland’s striking method of telling the story of the shootings was partially driven by necessity. His indie documentary was made on a small budget raised through online crowdfunding and matching grants from UT alumni, and he would not be able to film extended re-enactment scenes on the campus itself, which could be reconstituted instead through animation. But necessity can still be the mother of invention, and Tower is nothing if not inventive.

Maitland mixes the re-enactments with re-enacted testimonial interviews, all animated in a warm, colourful, but unsettlingly jumpy visual style, vaguely reminiscent of fellow Austin filmmaking impresario Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, albeit less surreal in its intentional effect. Indeed, the animation greatly heightens the powerful affect of Maitland’s film, emphasizing the sturdy, understated Texan lyricism of the interview accounts, which convey the flow of events, emotions, and impressions in a unified tapestry of mood and tone and feeling. Aesthetically, tonally, and symbolically, Tower renders the tragic dimensions of the event – its uncertain, sweaty panic, the horror of its silences, the strange guilt it engenders in even the most selfless of participants – as a work of art. Maitland even allows himself flights of artistic fancy, as when a movingly-timed flashback account of the dayglow romance of wounded pregnant student Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman (both Tom and Claire’s unborn child were killed by the tower-top sniper, losses of a weight that is almost unfathomable) is portrayed amidst delicate Art Nouveau lattice frames.

As Tower approaches its conclusion, Maitland transitions from his animated “period” actors playing witnesses and participants to current and archived interview footage of the real people themselves. It’s a surprisingly moving choice, this belated alignment of Tower with more established documentary conventions. It reflects the director’s decision to make his film predominantly about those in the crosshairs of the sniper rather than about the sniper himself. Indeed, Whitman is only named in the denouement in an archival news report, and his troubles and motivations are not explored in any detail (much of the info given above is from other sources). Those wishing to learn more about the shooter may be disappointed, but Tower is a film about survival and endurance and spirit in the face of indiscriminate violence, and it denies its perpetrator the primary product of that violence: power over others.

Maitland overtly connects the 1966 UT shootings with subsequent massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and more, in what might be construed as an overreaching late thesis-statement lunge at topicality and relevance for a film immersed in the minutiae of a vanished era. But in its striking visual style, poised balance between animation and documentary footage, and ultimate embrace of human struggle in the midst of senseless terror (for what are mass shooters but terrorists, their empathy lost in a demented swirl of foggy causes and exploded grievances?), Tower is a measured, memorable antidote to the common results of mass shootings. To state it plainly, where contemporaneous media makes the killers into mythic figures, this film gives his victims and those who stood to defy and defeat him the mythic treatment. It comes by its topical relevance honestly, with hard, smart, well-felt effort and skill. It’s riveting and reflective, realist and poetic. Tower is a great film, not only a great documentary.

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Categories: Film, History, Reviews
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