“Stay away from the university area”
My first experience with rotoscope animation was probably Richard Linklater‘s Waking Life in 2001. I found it a fascinating technique retaining the live action movement and reality while allowing the room to add dream-like flourishes of fantasy that fit the frame aesthetically. You don’t care when someone’s head becomes a balloon and flies away because the transition has been seamless—there’s no jarring switch from human to cartoon that takes you out of the metaphor itself. A college film studies class later introduced me to Stan Brakhage and the possibilities of the technique seemed endless. But then came Charles Schwab and their mid-aughts commercials of people talking in rotoscope. Why? What did the animation add? Suddenly this cool art form was usurped and ruined, intent removed for commodification.
So when the buzz surrounded Keith Maitland‘s rotoscoped documentary Tower (depicting the 1966 Texas University campus shooting in Austin as ex-Marine Charles Whitman shot forty plus people, killing sixteen from a perch atop the main mall’s tower) I was reluctant. What was the point of animating a film that seems to be entirely made of reenactments? Was it another waste of time and energy like Schwab spending money to film actors and then animate them or would there be a thematic and/or formal purpose to the decision? Maitland may not fully lift the curtain to his intentions until approaching the tale’s conclusion, but they’re understood from the start. He’s transporting us back in time, the technique actually removing the staged action’s artifice by painting it as memory instead.
Tower is told by survivors fifty years later via interviews conducted since Pamela Colloff‘s 2006 Texas Monthly article “96 Minutes” piqued Maitland’s interest while attending the school himself. To hear it told via talking heads is powerful—especially when emotions grow overwhelming—but seeing it unfold increases that impact tenfold. The problem with reenactments, however, is that they never truly feel real. They look too polished, we feel their air of artificiality and safety on a film set removed from the chaos, and they pale in comparison to archival footage depicting events as they unfold. Animating the events therefore scrubs away this pristine sheen. Rather than watching actors pretend onscreen, we’ve entered the survivors’ minds to experience everything as they do whenever they close their eyes.
Maitland and his animators add to the frame for psychedelic interludes memorializing love or to depict sweltering heat waves and blurred vision bringing things in and out of focus. The medium provides full control to portray things emotionally as well as physically, changing colors from black and white tragedy to bright blue skies. We see fear and terror stopping and starting to the staccato gunshots blaring out, the visuals cringing as the storytellers cringe and glowing with songs of the sixties once love and hope permeate the action. The journey isn’t therefore one Maitland has created to accompany the dialogue—it is the dialogue. And for him to switch off the animation and reveal the survivors as they are today is to expose heroes hiding in plain sight.
Because this is the ultimate goal: not to show a serial killer mowing down students and civilians decades before Columbine sparked a nation-wide epidemic, but those who stood tall to stop him. It’s about survivors like young paperboy Aleck Hernandez Jr. (Aldo Ordoñez) and pregnant co-ed Claire Wilson James (Violett Beane) senselessly shot during the ordeal and the people who saved them while bullets continued to whizz by. Allen Crum (Chris Doubek) was a grocery store manager who walked across the street to help the former before eventually going into the tower with local police. Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam) and John ‘Artly’ Fox (Séamus Bolivar-Ochoa) were selfless students who faced the prospect of their own deaths to assist the latter. Tower is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
There’s also KTBC-TV’s Neal Spelce (Monty Muir) on-site reporting non-stop, Officer Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) seeking out a way to put an end to the violence, and Officer Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette) who called into work from home to see if he was needed before leading the charge up to the observation deck. We hear them recount the danger, fear, and impulsive drive to move forward as a bystander in Brenda Bell (Vicky Illk) overstates her involvement from the sidelines as cowardice. She’s still like the rest: a survivor. She was there. Each of their stories is important and each one fleshes out the truth of that day as it unfolds in near real time on the big screen for our education. They bore witness and they prevailed.
I’m not even certain Whitman’s name is uttered. It’s seen on newspaper articles read by Claire, but for the duration he’s merely the monster in the tower. This is an important detail considering every tragic attack occurring today has the media focused squarely on the perpetrator and not the victims. Our culture has begun glorifying the villains, talking to their family/friends to hear the same old clichés (“We don’t know how it’s possible.”) instead of remembering those who didn’t have a choice in the matter. That’s what makes Maitland’s insightful film so crucial and poignant. We learn about who the deceased were (like Tom Eckman) before this day just as we learn about who those that survived became. Rather than center on the death, he delivers us life.
courtesy of Kino Lorber