Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Tragedy in Time: Keith Maitland's Tower

Pregnant freshman Claire James and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, moments before they're shot in Tower

On August 1st 1966, after first murdering his mother and then his wife, Charles Whitman, a mentally ill 25-year-old engineering student, climbed to the top of the campus tower of the University of Texas and began shooting randomly, hitting 49 people and killing 17. Up until the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, this horrible tragedy was the deadliest school shooting in American history. Most of the accounts have focused primarily on the shooter, and how his father was a violent and abusive man who regularly beat his wife and son. There were also stories of Charles Whitman's fascination for guns from a very young age until, as an adult, he became a marine and learned how to use them effectively. Some reports even suggested that an undiagnosed brain tumour may have contributed to his deteriorating mental state. His story has been told in many true crime documentaries. He was the subject of James Jameson's drama The Deadly Tower (1975) with Kurt Russell in the role of Whitman. Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin ("Taxi," "Cats in the Cradle") wrote an epic folk tale, "Sniper," in 1972, which was loosely based on the killer. "[T]he earnestness with which Chapin imbued his folksy love songs serves this macabre subject well," wrote critic Sean T. Collins. "Chapin is no more able to hide behind irony or ambiguity here than he is in his more romantic work, forcing the audience to come directly to terms with the horror of the sniper attack, and the tortured character of the sniper himself." As with most mass murders, we remember the perpetrator of the crime, that "tortured character" Collins identifies – a nobody who through an act of horror becomes a somebody – but rarely do we remember the victims, who end up, ironically, as anonymous as the killer himself was before his shocking deed.

In Keith Maitland's heartbreaking and powerfully affecting documentary, Tower, the focus shifts from Charles Whitman to the people he attacked, to those who helped the victims, and to the individuals who ultimately stopped him. Based on a 40th anniversary piece, "96 Minutes," by Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly, which was an oral history of the events told from the perspective of the victims, Maitland has done likewise in an imaginative and compelling dramatic fashion. He's also found a complex and fascinating way to tell a heroic story in the face of such horror. We get an intimate account of a number of people caught up in an unimaginable nightmare and see how they responded in a variety of unpredictable ways. Colloff provides the proper context for this unprecedented event in the introduction to her piece:

Before 9/11, before Columbine, before the Oklahoma City bombing, before “going postal” was a turn of phrase, the 25-year-old [Whitman] ushered in the notion that any group of people, anywhere—even walking around a university campus on a summer day—could be killed at random by a stranger. The crime scene spanned the length of five city blocks, from Twentieth to Twenty-fifth Streets, bounded by Guadalupe (“the Drag”) to the west and Speedway to the east, and covered the nerve center of what was then a relatively small, quiet college town. Hundreds of students, professors, tourists, and store clerks witnessed the 96-minute killing spree as they crouched behind trees, hid under desks, took cover in stairwells, or, if they had been hit, played dead.

She also goes further by responding as well to the aftermath, where shock and trauma turned to a denial of history; people decided to stop the clock and pretend the time never happened:

Both the Associated Press and United Press International would rank the shootings as the second most important story of the year, behind only the war in Vietnam. But until 1999, when the university dedicated a memorial garden near the Tower to the victims, the only physical reminder on campus of what had taken place were the few remaining bullet holes left in its limestone walls. (Many of the original scars had, over the years, been filled in with plaster.) No plaques had ever been displayed, no list of names read, no memorial services held. Decades of institutional silence had turned the shootings, and Whitman himself, into the answers to trivia questions. But, of course, there was nothing at all trivial about that day.

Maitland likewise avoids the trivia and denial and brings the horrific immediacy of this 1966 event into the present, where school shootings have become commonplace. He accomplishes this, in part, by allowing the story to unfold as it happens, through the remembered accounts of a few of the key people who were victims and heroes that day. Their stories – taken directly from the interviews Colloff did for her article – bring the shock of an innocence being shattered by bullets fired with no specific target in mind. Since many had never talked about the events before, their memories heard as we watch these events unfold provide a fresh perspective. It's as if fifty years have melted away and the wounds are still in need of healing. We are also aware (despite the apolitical approach of the picture) that we have been plunged into the Vietnam War era where values in the country were starting to change dramatically. It was almost three years after JFK was assassinated in another part of Texas and student radicalism was beginning to have impact on campuses. At the beginning of Tower, the first two victims of the sniper, pregnant freshman Claire James and her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, are seen reading the Port Huron Statement by the Students for a Democratic Society moments before he is murdered and she is wounded and her unborn child is killed. At another moment, an off-duty police officer hearing of the shooting on his radio starts imagining that the revolution has started and the Black Panthers have fired the first round. Tower catches a country in transition, when a political and cultural storm is brewing but nobody yet knows what form it will take. Charles Whitman, with his boy scout demeanor and All-American good looks, gives us the first view of the dark shadow that lurks behind the mythical masculine ideal that will be shattered by the end of the decade.

Charles Whitman and photo of Whitman shooting under the clock of the bell tower

Since the university was not open to the idea of Maitland recreating the shooting on the campus, he had to find alternate ways to tell this story. Out of necessity, he combined rotoscoped animation of actors playing out the story in his backyard with news footage interspersed with contemporary filmed interviews. But images from the past and present are so smoothly integrated that Tower feels like a thriller being told in real time. (Tower isn't literally told in real time, but the film originally ran 96 minutes, exactly how long Whitman took to shoot his targets until he was killed by local police who pursued him into his perch.) The animated portions are beautifully cut, with the propulsion of a graphic novel where we are compellingly drawn to each image as the pages of the story flip by in the blinking of an eye. I would rather not go into detail about the tales told by various individuals in the movie to avoid spoiling some of the revelations. But I will say that, despite the unspeakable terror that Tower evokes, the documentary includes an extraordinary number of characters who found a bravery within themselves and had a startling impact on the tragedy, just as those who hid have lived with a horrible sense of guilt, feeling they could have done more. Tower passes judgement, however, on no one, but rather lets each individual find his or her own sense of self.

What makes Tower such an original documentary, besides Maitland's technique, is how it deals with the concept of time. Besides demonstrating (as I mentioned above) the way newly acknowledged repressed memories can melt away time, the picture turns the tragedy into time sequences: some people see themselves as being in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others turn out to be in the right place at the right time. Tower also resists using songs as nostalgia. The tunes are heard from radios, decorating time either to create a mood or to contrast it. Maitland takes in the idea of time as continuity: people mark their moment by the random songs they hear (just as they do when they ask you where you were when Kennedy was shot, or what you were doing when 9/11 happened). We hear The Mamas and the Papas' "Monday, Monday," playing on a radio show in Austin -- its opening lyrics are "Oh, Monday morning / Monday morning couldn't guarantee / That Monday evening you would still / Be here with me" -- just before someone loses a partner to a bullet, but Maitland isn't trying to make an ironic point with it; the person who lost her lover actually recalls hearing that song before the bullets struck. A policeman hears Stonewall Jackson's portentous "Waterloo" on the radio ("Waterloo, Waterloo, where will you meet your Waterloo / Every puppy has his day, everybody has to pay / Everybody has to meet his Waterloo") just before he gets called to the campus to investigate the carnage and live out the warning in that song. We hear The Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream," a lazy song about getting lost in time, just as people are hearing the news. Donovan's innocent "Colors" underscores a tender moment between two lovers in the early days of their relationship - but we hear that song as part of her memory. Meanwhile her partner is bleeding to death on the hot pavement beside her. People are conscious of time throughout the movie, especially as they speak about the events before them. The killer is even shooting at them from under a big clock in the bell tower – marking time and killing time as well as people. Tower is a remarkable time capsule that transcends the moments it depicts.

  Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.        

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