Resensitized to Mass Shootings: Tower

A scene from Keith Maitland’s documentary TOWER. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Directed by Keith Maitland
Opens October 12 at Film Forum

Too often, movies tell us shocking true stories in the comfortingly false ways in which we expect them to be told—even when they ought to be too excruciating for such untroubling dramatic structures. (Consider, for example, almost every Holocaust movie.) Tower stands as a corrective: not, maybe, by itself a game-changer, but at least an example of how we might rethink the clichés in our storytelling—a guide for filmmakers to sweeping out the shit and starting fresh. It tells a not-unheard-of story in the ongoing saga of modern American gun violence: that of Charles Whitman, the first modern school shooter, a homegrown terrorist who from the tower of the University of Texas at Austin shot 46 random innocent people (killing 13, plus an eight-month-old fetus, plus his wife and mother earlier, plus someone who died decades later from complications) for apparently no good reason.

I suppose you’d call Tower a docudrama; director Maitland has assembled archival footage, re-creations and talking-head witnesses to take us through the action—except his footage is rotoscoped, and his witnesses are actors, telling real stories based on interviews with actual survivors. The narrators then look the same as they do in the re-created scenes of the 50-year-old massacre, creating an illusion of contemporariness, intensifying the relevance of this story to our firearms-plagued present. It’s conspicuously unreal and aestheticized, yet not alienating. Sometimes atrocity loses its immediacy, and only by intensifying its surrealer qualities—pulling it apart and gluing it back together in unusual ways—can we make it sting again, the way it’s supposed to. That is, it’s not the violence we’ve become desensitized to—it’s the method of its communication.

Tower argues, in its weird way, that being shot or being under fire is hallucinatory; at times, the movie is psychedelic, which of course is appropriate to the era of its subject. (Maitland repeatedly reintroduces that fateful, 9/11-pretty Monday with the Mamas & the Papas’ “Monday, Monday.”) That subject, by the way, is the event, not the perpetrator; Whitman is mentioned only in passing, toward the end. Instead, Tower is a portrait of crisis, showing the variety of human reactions in extraordinary circumstances. The riveting story deglamorizes the violence, highlighting the real people and lives it affected. (It’s based on Pamela Colloff’s oral history “96 Minutes,” published 10 years ago in Texas Monthly.) These actual people suddenly appear in the last third, taking over for the animated actors who played them as the story moves from the action to the aftermath; youthful cartoons give way to aged faces. It’s a gut punch, this reminder of reality amid so much of its rotoscoped opposite. Tower asks us to resee its tragedy in a way a traditional documentary never could. But it also asks us to resee all tragedies, especially the ways we inure ourselves to them, the more easily to dismiss their unbearable horrors.

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