Friday, February 17, 2017

The Tower

The Tower (Keith Maitland) is a documentary about a famous and terrible event that occurred at the University of Texas in Austin on August 1, 1966.  On that day, a skilled marksman named Charles Whitman, having murdered his own family, ascended to the top of a clock tower commanding a view of the university campus.   From his perch,Whitman began shooting his rifle and managed to wound and kill about forty people.  Every generation must became reacquainted with the horror of gun violence on this scale -- I recall seeing these shocking images from Texas, a place that seemed particularly rife with violence after President Kennedy's assassination in Dallas a couple years earlier.  Pictures shown on the TV-news and in magazines such as Life presented the facade of the great clock tower as incongruously high, ornate and impassive, a building that looked somewhat like the huge towers of the university in Moscow, a sinister apparition as if from a nightmare or a Hitchcock film.  These pictures made a deep impression on me and the tower itself always seemed to me a sinister agent of doom.

The Tower is a straightforward narrative of the events involved in the sniper attack that day fifty years ago.  The film is constructed from first-person accounts, people who are now in their seventies.  The stories revolve around the account of a pregnant woman who was one of the first victims shot down under the tower.  It was more than a hundred degrees on that day and the woman recalls feeling as if she were melting on the hot concrete.  Black and white footage of the shooting shows her lying next to the corpse of her boyfriend, sprawled on the pavement in the center of the quadrangle.  The film's director stages the action using the technique of rotoscope animation -- in other words, we see people as stylized, naturalistically animated figures moving through an abstract landscape.  The rotoscope animation is mostly accomplished in black and white or tones of grey and, in this way, the film can show us carnage with drowning the pictures in blood.  Rotoscope animation seems somehow associated with Austin, Texas -- the most famous film alumnus of the University of Austi, Richard Linklater, has used rotoscope technology in several of his films, most particularly Waking Life (2001).  In this case, the animated images contrast with the somewhat murky black and white video of the event and provide the viewer with a sense of the fifty years separating us from the killings -- the rotoscope imagery abstracts and clarifies the imagery the way memory simplifies and sharpens contours of what is recalled, while omitting non-essential details.  We see the narrators in the film the way they looked in 1966, their images extracted from the video footage that is also displayed for us.  Then, in the most moving part of the film, it's final 15 minutes, we see the speakers as they look today, after a half-century and, in many cases, still obviously affected profoundly by the hour-and-a-half shooting spree   Much of what happened in the incident has never really been assimilated by the narrators -- no one knew anything about post-traumatic stress in those days:  there were no grief counselors, no therapists, the school was cleaned-up (the sidewalks were covered with blood) and, after one day's closure, re-opened on August 3, 1966.  The policemen who, with a vigilante deputized for the hour, gunned down the sniper are shown at a press conference conducted about two hours after the event.  The young Hispanic cop who emptied his service revolver into Whitman seems particularly damaged by the incident -- when the camera cuts to a close-up of his face, his eyes are completely dead and his features look like a rigid mask.  (In live-action, we see the man as he looks now with the pregnant woman, seated at a table to talk with one another -- they never spoke before the film was made.) 

The movie is full of curious asides.  This being Texas everyone was armed and, apparently, Whitman was under fire from all sides of the campus.  The only people not shooting at Whitman were the local cops whose service revolvers were useless against a sniper three-hundred feet above them.  Some of the local people thought the gunfire was coming from Black Panthers.  Every fifteen minutes during the hour and a half ordeal the clock tower rang out the time.  At one point in the film, a woman witnessing the mayhem from behind a retaining wall next to a big statue of Jefferson Davis says:  "This was the moment that separated the scared people from the brave people" -- accounting herself one of the scared people, living for fifty years with the memory of their cowardice.  The bravest of the brave was a woman who ran out onto the quadrangle, hurling herself to the ground next to the wounded pregnant lady -- this woman lay next to the wounded woman for more than an hour in the 100 degree heat  talking to keep her from lapsing into unconsciousness.  (The woman, Karen Starpattern, seems to have been some kind perennial oddball and hippy -- she died in 1996).  There are mysteries -- we don't understand much about the pregnant woman's situation.  Who was the father?  What was she doing at the school?  The man killed next to her was apparently her great love -- one element of the movie that I thought incongruous and unnecessary was the use of Peter Max style psychedelic animation to depict her love for her companion.  The pregnant woman, who became a teacher and adopted an Ethiopian boy as her child, says that she still dreams of finding her dead baby alive and smiling at her -- the fetus was killed by the bullet that ripped apart her reproductive organs.  She shows the camera a childhood photograph of the sniper, Whitman -- the picture shows a happy little boy playing with two big rifles on a sandy beach.  "I have forgiven him," the woman says.  This is a very moving film, dignified and powerful -- the rotoscope technique allows the events to be shown in a way that schematizes them, turning horror into a form of art but without excessively lurid drama or the specious glamor of aesthetized violence.  We see the events clearly, as if refracted through crystalline prose (it's like Hemingway's description of a battle) but as remembered after the lapse of fifty years.  One of the heroes of the episode (he rescued the pregnant woman) recalls that as he ran across the quadrangle dragging the girl, his horn-rimmed glasses slid down his nose and almost dropped to the pavement.  The black and white video shows this happening in slow motion -- but you need to be told to look for this detail.  This young man was so terrified that he says he crawled into some bushes and almost fainted before he roused himself to run across the shooting gallery to rescue the wounded woman. 

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