Keith Maitland’s documentary “Tower” tells the story of the sniper attack that took place at the University of Texas at Austin on August 1, 1966
Documentary filmmakers labor in a state of lack—above all, a lack of documents. One of the best recent documentaries also has one of the best recent titles: “The Missing Picture.”
The essence of documentary filmmaking is the creation of images to take the place of those that don’t exist or can’t be found, and in recent years documentary filmmakers have done that by by fabricating substitutes for those images, whether in dramatic reënactments or through animation. The fundamental dividing line in documentary practice is the one between images that are made and images that are found—between original images and archival footage—and both often fall rapidly into the trap of conventions that stunt their use.
Keith Maitland’s documentary “Tower” (playing at Film Forum and nationwide) tells the story of the sniper attack that took place at the University of Texas at Austin on August 1, 1966, an event that is widely identified as the first modern mass shooting. Maitland uses familiar and even overfamiliar devices—mainly animation and, in particular, rotoscoping—to compensate for a dearth of archival images. But he does so in boldly imaginative ways that prove to have a long philosophical tail, one that ultimately circles around to address the very subject of the nonexistent images that the animations replace, and to spotlight the role of the movie itself in revealing that historical lack of imagery and making up for it.
“Tower” re-creates the events of that day in 1966 by means of interviews with survivors and responders, as well as through dramatized and rotoscoped sequences; these animations are blended skillfully, sometimes stunningly, with archival film footage. But Maitland’s inspiration—and it’s no minor one—is to use animation as a cinematic fountain of youth, transforming the subjects of interviews conducted in recent years back into their youthful selves, bringing to the screen first-person accounts of the attacks as if they were being delivered by the participants mere days or weeks after they took place.
It’s apt, given the film’s subtle yet decisive built-in reflexivity, that it opens with an animated view of a young news reporter, Neal Spelce, from the local television station KTBC, driving toward campus, with archival images of the school’s central tower in the background. The tower in question, at the center of campus, is three hundred and seven feet high. On August 1, 1966, a man named Charles Whitman forced his way to the observation deck and, using high-powered rifles from that commanding vantage point, fired at people on campus and in surrounding neighborhoods. Spelce describes hearing a report of a shooter on campus from the station’s police scanner, and heading to the university to report on the events.
The film’s main interview subjects, in addition to Spelce, are Claire Wilson James, a student who was walking on campus with her boyfriend, Tom Eckman, when both were shot; John (Artly) Fox, a student who, along with a friend, risked gunfire to carry James to safety; Aleck Hernandez, Jr., who was a boy delivering newspapers by bicycle when he was shot; Brenda Bell, a student who observed the shootings from afar; Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy, the police officers who stopped Whitman; and Allen Crum, a bookstore manager who helped the officers stop him. There’s also a crucial dramatization of Rita Starpattern, another student who risked her life to care for James, lying down beside her as if playing dead while talking to her and keeping her awake. These interview subjects are voiced by actors in the animated reconstructions. (The movie is based in part on the article “96 Minutes,” an oral history of the events by Pamela Colloff that was published in Texas Monthly, in 2006; Colloff is also one of the film’s executive producers.)
From the start, the immediacy of the accounts—seemingly delivered while the physical and mental wounds were still fresh—makes the dramatizations appear not like Maitland’s own version of the events but like the visualizations and recollections of the participants themselves. Moreover, in several scenes, Maitland surpasses external events to get cinematically into the minds of his interview subjects, emphasizing their remarks with subjective visual fantasies, whether lyrical or horrific, that conjure inner experience impressionistically.
The movie devotes very little attention to Whitman himself—and then does so only from the personal perspective of one participant, James. Rather, Maitland creates a multifaceted narrative mosaic, in which news accounts—local and national—converge with rumor, in which a community is suddenly and catastrophically transformed and some of its members are inspired to undertake colossal acts of daring and heroism of the sort that daily life rarely elicits and even more rarely records. “Tower” plays like a historical Hitchcock film about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances of which they have agonizingly partial views but nonetheless take decisive action. Its Hitchcockian devices include audacious and terrifying point-of-view shots, sacralized torments of guilt and responsibility, and, above all, the tragic irony of the aftermath.
Maitland’s decisive coup de cinéma occurs midway through the film, at a key dramatic and historical moment—when James says that, while lying on the hot pavement, wounded through the abdomen and with her unborn baby not moving, she expected to die. At that moment, Maitland cuts from the animated interview with young James to a current-day, videotaped, full-color interview with James now, a hale and vigorous older woman, continuing the story of her survival.
From that point in the film, Maitland pursues the same strategy with other participants, featuring interviews with them from their later years and matching them with their younger cinematic avatars. He also brings several of them together, movingly, for reunions that, they say, are their first in the half-century separating them from the events. The very subject of the film reveals itself in this long epilogue: the reason for the dearth of archival interviews with the participants in the event is that they were, actively or tacitly, discouraged from discussing it. There’s one remarkable film clip of a press conference featuring Martinez and McCoy, the officers who shot Whitman, at which neither man spoke. Rather, the Austin police chief did the talking on their behalf.
Whether actively, by well-meaning professionals or family members, or tacitly, through the prevailing ethos of the time, those who survived the massacre and those who stopped it were nearly silenced, or at least muffled. Perhaps it came out of the mistaken belief that the best way for an individual to get past calamity was to try to suppress the memory, or in the hope that the community at large could distance itself from such evil by effacing its traces. That’s why the recent interviews and reunions filmed by Maitland in “Tower” coil around to build the film itself into the events of the time. The movie enacts the very liberation—of the voice, of memory, of personal connections, and of collective acknowledgment—that was impossible in the mid-sixties. It airs and reënacts the experiences of a crucial trauma in a belated effort at personal healing and civic commemoration.
This civic aspect of the movie is less prominent in the version of the film that’s currently in release. When “Tower” premièred earlier this year, at South by Southwest, where I first saw it, it included an epilogue about the unveiling of a memorial to the attack’s victims on the University of Texas campus and the public ceremony that accompanied it. For an audience composed mainly of Austin residents, that ending offered an evident reassurance and a sort of closure (as I found in chatting with and listening to audience members on the way out of the theatre), but one that was artistically unsatisfying in its affirmation that a public ceremony would, in effect, take the place of the intimate observations and confessions that nourish a complex investigation such as “Tower.” Maitland has removed that epilogue for the theatrical release, and he’s right to do so: his own film is a commemoration more enduring than stone.