Friday, 11 August 2017

On demand: "Tower"

Just before midday on August 1, 1966, sniper Charles Whitman took up position in the clocktower of the University of Texas' Austin campus and, for the next ninety-six minutes, opened fire at anybody who happened to fall between his crosshairs, killing 15 people and leaving a further 33 injured. Tower, the director Keith Maitland's evocation of this early entry in modern America's long line of mass shooting incidents, deploys a mix of archive footage, interviews and filmed reconstruction alongside the same style of rotoscope animation that Austin native Richard Linklater deployed in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly; throughout, we sense we're getting a gloss on these events - animation allows Maitland to punch up the decade's tie-dye colours, while fading to stark black-and-white when these heads and hippies hear the first shots - but the prevailing photorealism is enough to suggest it's not much. That Whitman's targets are vulnerable human beings rather than cartoon characters becomes doubly evident from the halfway mark, when Maitland begins to cut back to his interviewees' lined, flesh-and-blood faces - some guilt-wracked, others more forgiving - which his animators must have studied as reference points.

The approach places us, usefully, in that no-man's-land between drama and documentary: many facts are conveyed, but they're bolstered by a heightened sense of the panic, confusion and terror that broke out that mundane Monday afternoon in August. Maitland's primary achievement is just how much resonant, moving or otherwise stirring testimony he wrings just from the transcripts of those who found themselves in the firing line - an Altmanesque fresco of radio news reporters, young mothers-to-be, rubbernecking students, aghast onlookers, and untested cops striving where possible to contain the situation. As their stories intersect - alliances formed, support provided - Tower is transformed into a snapshot of America as it was by the mid-1960s, either frozen to the spot or ducking for cover between the assassinations of the Kennedy boys. One (white) cop, approaching the scene with no advance knowledge of the sniper's identity, confesses his fear that there might have been "thousands of Black Panthers out there" plotting insurrection; that scene becomes altogether more Texan when a group of concerned citizens clutching deer rifles report for duty, turning a one-shooter situation into a pitched lunch-hour battle.

Maitland takes a particular care to temper the narrative excitement of the police entering and ascending the clock tower to neutralise the shooter, layering the eventual takedown with Debussy's melancholic "Clair de Lune" and positioning it roughly two-thirds into his 80-minute running time. The film's final third is set aside to understanding the trauma this episode left behind - if not the obvious bullet wounds and scars, then the ifs, buts and what-might-have-beens haunting the actions taken that day. With the current Presidential incumbent rattling his sabre (and threatening far worse) in multiple arenas, one suspects the film's implicit call for tighter gun control legislation is fated to vanish like pistol smoke in the wind, but Maitland's handling of this tragedy proves a good deal more involving than, say, Gus van Sant's chilly, impersonal Columbine evocation Elephant. We are appalled, moved and disturbed here, not least - as Tower's slightly (deliberately?) jarring coda makes all too clear - by a realisation that the conversations that sprang up around this relatively distant event are exactly those we've been forced to have in the wake of the 21st century's myriad acts of barbarism. Fifty years have passed, and not a damn thing has changed, save the means of reporting, the way we share these stories with others.

Tower is now streaming on Amazon Prime.  

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