True-crime documentaries usually center on the perpetrators, but there’s barely a reference in Keith Maitland’s shattering Tower to the life of the man who, on August 1, 1966, rode an elevator to the 27th floor of the University of Texas at Austin clock tower and opened fire on random passersby, shooting 44 people, 11 fatally. (He also killed people on the nearby observation deck.) Maitland uses rotoscoped animation to re-create the events from the limited — excruciatingly limited — perspective of those on the ground. These include two people who were struck by bullets: a young woman eight months pregnant and a boy on a bicycle delivering newspapers. We also hear the stories of policemen and civilians who risked their lives to carry off victims or climb the tower to confront the gunman. There’s even a woman who watched from a classroom window and now says there was a “moment that separate[d] the brave people from the scared people. I realized that I was a coward.” I wouldn’t use that word but I get where she’s coming from.
What’s hard for us to imagine now — after that day and similar ones in Aurora and Newtown and many other places that live in infamy — is that those on the University of Texas campus in 1966 had no context for this event, nothing to compare it to. The pregnant woman, Claire Wilson, tells Maitland that, as she lay on the plaza, the temperature approaching 100, the concrete burning the backs of her thighs, her blood leaking out, she thought that it was an alien invasion and she’d been hit by an “anti-matter gun.” Probably that made more sense at the time than what was actually happening.
Rotoscope means the animation is laid over real actors who went through the paces of the people they’re portraying. Those actors also narrate, their words taken directly from transcripts or interviews conducted by the filmmaker. Sometimes Maitland cuts to actual footage from that day. Sometimes he puts animated figures in the foreground against grainy, black-and-white news coverage. It’s an extraordinary weave. Rather than distancing us, the animation brings us closer. It puts what’s happening in the present tense. The rifle cracks seem to slice through us — and Maitland cuts to negative images, strobe-like, as the victims fall to the ground. The sheer beauty of the images gives Tower a surreal quality and drenches it in emotion. The soundscape is layered, a collage of traffic noise, real radio and TV broadcasts, and the sound of Top 40 hits like the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “(What a Day for a) Daydream” over tinny AM radios. Through all this, the clock tower — animated and in footage — keeps the time, so we’re aware of the minutes ticking by.
We’re also aware of how close to death Claire is, and how helpless the people on the side feel. They know she’s alive, but they’re afraid to enter that open plaza. A man who did — much later — says he still feels a tingle in the center of his spine, the place he was sure the bullet would hit. The most astonishing moment in Tower is when a young woman named Rita Starpattern walks out to Claire, lies perpendicular to her, and tells her it’s going to be all right. She keeps Claire from losing consciousness as time seems to stand still.
The word you sometimes hear about films like Tower from documentary purists is “over-aestheticized,” which means they think it’s false to the reality, manipulative. It’s too composed, too lyrical. Director Keith Maitland sometimes does go a little far for my taste: I could have done without the psychedelic love montage (with butterflies) when Claire remembers her blissful months with the boyfriend dead beside her. It’s true to her feelings and the hippie-dippy culture of the time, but it plays almost like parody.
But I love when non-fiction filmmakers stretch the form and attempt, with as much honesty as they can muster, to put us in the middle of the events they describe. They give us stunning hybrids like Waltz With Bashir, Persepolis, and, now, Tower. Maitland puts us on such intimate terms with his subjects that when the faces of the real, aged people burn in over their younger animated counterparts, the effect is unspeakably moving. This was well before we understood such things as posttraumatic stress disorder, and many survivors have never wanted to talk about what happened. They spoke to journalists decades later. Some are baring their feelings only now, for this film.
I was on the three-person jury that gave Tower the top documentary prize at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival — in Austin. You can imagine the emotions. That cut of the film had a longish section about other gun massacres with a pointed message about gun control. It’s gone now, trimmed to brief images of Columbine and Aurora and other sites of carnage, and that’s arguably for the better. It felt shoehorned in. But I missed it. Ironically, some people might see Tower in its present form as an example of what happens when not enough people are armed. Although the Texans who blasted at the tower with squirrel guns had little impact (perhaps they kept the gunman from getting too comfortable), it was the cops — Ramiro Martinez, Houston McCoy, and a hastily deputized civilian named Allen Crum — who finally ended the siege after an hour that seemed like a lifetime. Whether someone could have stopped the gunman before he started blasting: Sure, with a time machine.
On the 50th anniversary of the Austin shooting — August 1, 2016 — it became legal for students at the University of Texas to carry guns. We seem to be in the midst of a vast human experiment in states like Texas, Colorado, North Carolina, etc. God help us all.