August: Tower

“Memories: Archival and Animated, Personal and Public”

Ethan Thompson (Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi)

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When I toured the University of Texas as a high school senior in the early 1990s, our student guide pointed out that if you looked closely at the statue of George Washington peering out over the south mall, you could see bullet holes where Charles Whitman had shot him in the ass. Needless to say, this was not an officially-sanctioned tour talking point. At the time, there was no memorial to the 1966 massacre, in which Whitman shot and killed fourteen people and wounded 31 more from atop the observation deck of the tower building that overlooks the campus. My guide’s comment was symptomatic of the gallows humor with which, in place of formal acknowledgement or discussion, the tragedy was commonly treated. “There was a rumor about a tumor” as Kinky Friedman wrote in “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.” Why draw attention to what seemed an embarrassing and particularly Texan tragedy—in the state’s capital, at its flagship university, 200 miles down the interstate from where JFK was killed less than three years before?

Keith Maitland’s Tower remedies the officially sanctioned forgetting by making the event exceedingly visible. The film employs archival footage and interviews, newly shot interviews, as well as recreated/scripted interviews and reenactments to immerse the viewer into the perspectives of multiple participants in the event—victims, witnesses, reporters, police officers. Near the end of the film, we see an example of the institutional attempts to control the retelling of the shooting when the police officers involved appear at a press conference but aren’t allowed to talk or respond to questions themselves. By giving voice to not just those officers but also so many others who experienced the tragedy, Tower is the best kind of public memorial—much better than a list of names on a plaque.

The most obvious formal quality of the film is the animation of the reenactments, which effectively aestheticizes them. When recreations are employed in a “serious documentary feature” like Tower, we expect them to do more than simply stand in for actuality footage. For example, Waltz with Bashir uses animated recreations to visualize memories, but emphasizes their subjective and fragmentary nature. Likewise, there are several occasions in Tower when animated recreations visualize an individual’s feelings—things that can’t be simply represented or recreated in live-action. But most of the time in Tower, characters are simply giving testimony, and we see those events in animated form as they describe them.

Yet, the animation in Tower is not just a formal strategy that helps create visual consistency and occasionally makes the subjective visible. Because the animated recreations so contrast with lowbrow cable documentary recreations, the animation carries connotations of artistic prestige. That is, the recreations seem to be in good taste—something I imagine was a concern for the persons and institutions involved in recounting this tragedy on such a public scale.

This is not to say that the animated recreations distance and isolate Tower from past or present reality. Tower moves back and forth rapidly between animated reenactments and archival footage. At other times, archival sound recordings are paired with animated recreations. We hear from a number of the film’s interviews that the participants haven’t talked about the massacre much since it happened. But when you see all this archival footage interwoven, it’s a reminder that so much was willfully forgotten. Much of this documentary does not have to be animated because these archival materials exist—and have existed—to be seen. Thus, the juxtaposition of so much archival material with animated recreations in Tower becomes a method of confronting the institutionalized forgetting of (and attendant refusal to come to terms with) the Whitman massacre.

Maybe Tower can be made and watched now because the tragedy no longer seems a particularly Texan event given the other campus massacres that have occurred throughout the United States since. The film dutifully turns outward toward the end and acknowledges this with a montage of recent mass shootings. However, for me, the more interesting gesture outward comes when a man who helped carry a wounded pregnant woman to safety remarks upon the irony of seeking shelter beneath a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, which stands a little further down from Washington’s statue, and which some people say doesn’t deserve a place on campus. The comment is a stark reminder of the politics of memorialization beyond the film’s powerful recounting and representation of one traumatic event. What is the proper way to remember, make sense, and pay tribute to the past? How do you go about deciding who or what to memorialize, and when to stop memorializing them?

By making many individual experiences of the 1966 shooting available through recreations, animations, and archival materials, Tower demonstrates how well suited the documentary form is for visualizing the past and addressing such questions. It also suggests the need to grapple with the forces—personal and institutional—which may discourage or attempt to control how we look back.

“Animation as Immersion”

Bella Honess Roe (University of Surrey)

Director Keith Maitland’s animated documentary about the 1966 mass shooting at University of Texas, Austin, has been described as both “experimental” and “experiential”. I’m not convinced about the former claim. Using animation to reconstruct historical events is not a new strategy in documentary film.

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The techniques used by Maitland were used previously, for example, by Brett Morgen in 2007’s Chicago 10. Like Chicago 10, Tower uses actors to reenact historical events, in this case the experiences of those caught up in the shooting, and then animates this via rotoscope animation (where live action footage is “traced over”). More unusually, Tower uses the same rotoscoped animation, and the same young actors, for the film’s interview scenes, which are intercut with the animated reenactments and archival material. This was part of Maitland’s “immersive” strategy as he feared that cutting to live action footage of the older interviewees would “break the spell” by taking the audience out of the moment of the shooting. This tactic also creates a sense of temporal dissonance and suspense, making us wonder: did these victims survive?

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The film has been described as “haunting” and here it reminds me of Dennis Tupicoff’s His Mother’s Voice (1997), which uses rotoscoping to animate a radio interview in which a mother describes learning that her teenaged son has been shot and killed. That film uses actors too, to reconstruct both the night of the shooting as well as the later interview scene in the mother’s house. Tower, in a similar way to His Mother’s Voice, has a haunting effect due to the double-remove of the animation from the actual event. Not only are we seeing animation instead of “actual” footage, but also this animation is of actors speaking the words of the interviewees. It’s a strange but effective technique when making films about grief and past trauma – the absence of the documentary subjects from the frame a metaphor both for the absences this event created and the absence it became in their lives. Tower’s other aesthetic strategies, such as switching from full color animation to black and white as soon as someone is shot or otherwise drawn into the shooting, amplifies such metaphor.

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Ultimately, Tower offers resolution and in the last half hour of the film we see the interviewees as they are now. The first interviewee “reveal” takes place at the film’s moment of narrative resolution, when the gunman is shot dead. The sense of closure is echoed visually as the previously black-and-white animations of the reconstructed interviews gives way to the interviewees themselves, 50 years on from the moment we’ve previously been immersed in. However, there is a sadness attached to this too: the flawless young animated characters instantly aging half a century. It seems as if the film constitutes closure for them too, offering many of them a cathartic process of revisiting an experience they originally felt unable to talk about. But the film’s final live-action montage of footage from more recent mass-shootings denies any cosy sense of an ending. As is often the case in animated documentary, a final recourse to reality seems to be required to remind us that this was “really real.” For all animation’s immersive possibilities, this suggests that indexical witnessing is what is required to pack the final punch.

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One thought on “August: Tower

  1. Very thoughtful comments and I just wonder what about Targets? Wasn’t that on a comparable event? And didn’t it use the horror genre as this uses animation? A fiction, as we like to say, but a fiction that draws us toward the world, our world, of real horror and death. Bogdanovich has never been super socially conscious and he may be prouder of how he got to make a cheapy film than what its thematics were, but it makes an intriguing comparison point to the use of abstraction away from the indexical whammy so prevalent in documentary that animation presents here. When is a non-fiction a fiction (un)like any other?

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