A fateful day is re-examined by its survivors, whose stories are told via a brilliant narrative arrangement, and the use of animated recreations is only one aspect of it. The Texas tower shootings put our present, everyday reign of violent terror in a humanist context. It’s not exploitative — the killer’s name is barely mentioned. It works, it’s riveting, and its positive message is one of calm sanity. Highly recommended.
2016 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 82 96 min. / Street Date March 21, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95
Starring: Violett Beane, Louie Arnette, Blair Jackson, Monty Muir, Chris Doubek, Reece Everett Ryan, Josephine McAdam, Aldo Ordoñez, Vicky Illk, John Fitch, Karen Davidson, Jeremy Brown.
Cinematography: Keith Maitland, Sarah Wilson
Film Editor: Austin Reedy
Original Music: Osei Essed
Produced by Megan Gilbride, Keith Maitland
Directed by Keith Maitland
Advance publicity on Keith Maitland’s Tower set me against it from the start. I’ve long become convinced that dramatic re-enactments of violent crimes glamorize the violence even when the intention is otherwise. And I haven’t liked the one or two movies I’ve seen that substitute roto-scoped animation for normal live action. I’m happy to report that Maitland’s Tower accomplishes the impossible — it makes a powerful and positive human statement from a grim subject, eliminating anything that could be considered ‘violence chic.’
The awful ‘Texas tower shootings’ at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966 made a big impact on all of us back then. Perhaps we were sheltered but a crime that heinous seemed unimaginable. Throughout my childhood in the 1950s and ’60s crazy violence was something for the movies — everyday life was so uneventful that a car wreck, a fire truck with its alarm, or a helicopter overhead was something unusual. The tower sniper event was a wake-up call about calamities that would start happening on a weekly basis — bloody news film from Vietnam would be interspersed with mass murders, riots and assassinations, until endless mayhem became the norm. I think that much of my parents’ generation gave up on America right then — they voted Republican, dropped out of the flow of the culture and moved to rural communities away from ‘dangerous’ minorities.
The tower slayings were picked over by newspaper and magazine articles, but the survivors and participants didn’t go public with their stories, or cash in the way people do now, when there is barely a distinction made between news, entertainment and reality TV. I’ve instead seen Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s opportunistic yet reasonably sensitive re-thinking of a similar sniper-mass murderer. The victims in that show are anonymous: helpless drivers on the 405 freeway and patrons at a drive-in movie. Much later came the 1975 TV movie The Deadly Tower starring Kurt Russell, John Forsythe and Ned Beatty. Each of those pictures concentrated on the sniper-killer, portraying him as a mystery, a cipher, a representative of the new breed of faceless, motive-less killer. Each spent time showing how the killer was a gun expert, and that he armed himself well before climbing to a high vantage point to shoot unsuspecting civilians. The Deadly Tower plays more or less in real time, also celebrating the bravery of the deputies and civilian that climbed the tower to put a stop to the killing.
A full half-century later, Tower uses a mixed-media approach to present a new recreation of the 90-minute event that changed so many lives. As several local TV stations sent newsreel cameramen to the scene, there exist a couple of minutes of footage of the scene as it happened: people running and crouching behind cover; telephoto angles on the top of the tower showing puffs of smoke coming from a protected opening; the wounded and dead lying on the hot concrete at noon, out in the open where nobody can come to their aid. Director Maitland fashions his recreation of events directly from interviews he conducted with participants and survivors, most of whom are still alive.
As the memories are now fifty years old, the roto-scoped animation seems a fine approximation of the ‘memory experience.’ The voices we hear sound like people recounting old events. The voices are too youthful to be the actual people; they match the faces in the animated sequences and are performed by actors. This importance of this makes itself known about halfway through the movie.
No time is expended on the killer, who remains an anonymous figure and barely identified by name. We instead follow several key people whose lives were changed in an instant. Three policemen, or deputies, act independently, responding to the chaos and misinformation heard on their radios (police and commercial AM). Two don’t coordinate until they happen to meet outside an elevator in the tower. The third doesn’t show up until the first two have already begun their assault. A concerned civilian joins the assault almost by accident, moving into the ‘danger zone’ beneath the tower as if compelled to get involved. The movie isn’t about the confusion and lack of coordination in the response, but instead concentrates on the reality of the event as it happened.
Also important is a roving radio reporter, who drives his car right into the line of fire from the tower and reports what he sees. It takes a full eighty minutes before any real counter-action against the sniper comes together. During the ordeal we see isolated people, even the police, waiting for instructions, and only belatedly responding on their own initiative.
The strongest emotional focus is the drama on the main concourse below the tower. A newsboy is shot right off his bicycle, and his cousin holds his hand as he’s driven to the hospital. Two students are shot down right in the center of a broad expanse of concrete, a pregnant young woman and her boyfriend. She must lie there, bleeding, for the full duration of the ordeal. Another pair of students that heard a radio story about ‘someone with an air rifle’ shows up on the quad looking for excitement. They must hide behind a wall for cover, and at a distance observe the fallen pregnant woman. They agonize over their inability to come to her aid. When other people go on record saying they felt powerless to do anything, we don’t fault them — the sniper was shooting continually for the full period of the incident, nailing anybody he could see. Several victims were shot down at extreme long range, on the off-campus business street more than two city blocks away.
In the middle of this traumatic, frustrating event a kind of miracle happens — a female student ignores the danger to run right up to the pregnant shooting victim, lies down next to her in full view of the tower, and begins to talk to her, sharing the danger and reassuring her that she’s not alone. It is not some phony goodwill gesture of the kind that sometimes crop up as feel-good filler on the news. The act of natural selflessness reinforces our belief in people, right when pessimism seems the only sane reaction. Even then, something has to come to a boil to force people to do things against their better judgment, to jump into the fire, so to speak. The two boys hiding behind the wall join others in running out to drag the victims to where they can be given aid. It’s not exaggerated — some of the best newsreel footage comes into play in this section.
The cinematic miracle in Tower happens around the time that Rita Starpattern (voice: Josephine McAdam) runs out to comfort the wounded, pregnant Claire Wilson (voice: Violett Beane). This may be a SPOILER. Claire has been narrating, trying to explain her feelings as she lies unable to move, her legs burning on the hot concrete. She is almost ready to give up trying to stay conscious. Rita arrives, and suddenly we cut to new video footage of Claire now, in 2015, in an interview chair, speaking to the camera. Her voice has changed, but we realize that her ‘young’ voice actor Violette Beane has been copying Claire’s speech patterns — the connection with the awful past is complete, and we feel an overwhelming sense of relief as we learn that Claire survived, and is here to talk about that fateful day.
The power comes as we realize that none of the extended ‘character’ voiceovers are scripted dramatic recreations. Younger voice talents have been imitating the already-recorded authentic memories of the actual participants. The young, dark-haired reporter is now a gray-haired TV veteran. The kids on the bicycle, the students that ran to the rescue under fire, are now all at retirement age. They are not ‘Texan stereotypes,’ quite the opposite. They are individuals, each of them unique and special.
Tower’s journalistic choices knock us out. We see almost nothing of the perpetrator and instead must concentrate on the personal price paid by the victims. We learn about how Claire and Rita meet later in the hospital; and discover that none of the survivors tried to leverage their experience for profit or benefit. Even the news briefing just after the fact is gloriously down to earth — the police chief states the facts, and the other participants are told to interrupt only if he misstates anything. He civilian hero who joined the assault, Allen Crum (voice: Chris Doubek) isn’t waiting for a special reward; he’s overcome with the shame of the whole situation, that such a bloodbath was even possible in America. The policemen take the same attitude. Nobody lobbies for guns, against guns, for police, or against the police. Nobody blames the students for getting shot, as might happen today. Walter Cronkite delivers a kinescoped editorial news-cap that to our ears fifty years later sounds like a prophecy of things to come, a marker for the arrival of ‘the age of senseless violence’ predicted in apocalyptic movies.
I’ve thought the use of roto-scoped live action was a cheat ever since the days of Ralph Bakshi. In the pictures A Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly I just didn’t see the point — why were we not just watching the underlying images? In Tower, using live action would essentially recreate The Deadly Tower, making the show look like yet another police thriller where men with guns must react to an unexpected situation, with actors playing heroes rescuing people. It might as well be a western drama. The animation eliminates the ‘ego content’: the actors trying to make an impression, the issue of production values (how did they get permission to film?) and all the commercial hoodoo that ends up packaging real-life events as yet another commercial product. In this docudrama, extreme stylization brings us closer to the subject at hand.
The one ‘breather break’ in the ordeal gives us Claire Wilson talking about her relationship with her boyfriend Tom, who fell with her there on the concrete, on the way to a class. Her memories of him are accompanied by warm shots of sunsets, and psychedelic animations that seem wholly appropriate. Tower uses choice needle-drop music from 1966 to remind us that most of the pop music at that time was still positive in outlook — that was a great year for AM radio. Debussy is also given a place of pride in the film’s last act.
Even more touching are the present day survivors, who admit that it feels strange to recall events they long ago tried to leave behind. Claire’s day of horror is a testament to the human will — what she’s done with her life is inspiring. We also get a touching insight into Rita Starpattern, that might help viewers feel less threatened by people with lifestyles different from their own. Let some other docudrama with a crude agenda push a thesis about politics or guns, using people like Rita and Claire to illustrate their argument. Tower lets them express what living in the Age of Terror — and great hope — is really like.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray of Tower is an excellent encoding of this show, that has made a vociferous fan of most everyone who has seen it. The color is excellent. Director Maitland has pulled off quite a coup, as much of his animated film was based on images recorded on an iPhone. The use of the existing news film is masterful. He concentrates on his core stories, and never do we feel that he’s at a loss for an appropriate image. Real views of the quad with Claire, Tom and Rita lying on the concrete show us just enough to be bitten by the reality of the situation — we can see Claire’s pregnant shape just like the witnesses say they can.
The disc says the feature is 82 minutes and the IMDB says 96 for when it was shown in festivals. I don’t know whether a typo is involved, or if material was dropped for length or for legal reasons. It isn’t missed, at least not with the show in this form.
Kino Lorber’s disc has some welcome extras. An excellent post-screening Q&A session sees director Keith Maitland and his cast, plus some of the original survivors of the incident, further explaining the film and responding to questions. A featurette covers the animation process, and another extra gives us full biographical details on many people caught up in the shooting. An additional, perhaps deleted scene shows a memorial being dedicated to the fateful day.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: post-screening Q&A’s, additional scene, memorial dedication; featurettes on the animation process, character profiles, Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 19, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson