Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Independent Lens: “Tower” (Tower Documentary LLC, Go Valley Productions, Independent Television Service, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Weaver program KPBS ran an Independent Lens documentary called “Tower,” about the first mass school shooting in American history: the murder of 16 people and the wounding of 33 others at the University of Texas in Austin by Charles James Whitman on August 1, 1966. This could have been a great show except for director Keith Maitland’s bone-headed decision to turn virtually the whole thing into an animated cartoon — no, I’m not making that up. Maitland’s approach was a combination of actual footage from the event (and I’m surprised at how much actual footage still exists), what appeared to be reconstructions of a few scenes shot in a deliberately blurry fashion to make them blend in with the old footage, and a lot of reproductions turned into shoddy-looking animated footage with the Rotoscoping process (a way of shooting live actors and then digitally tracing their bodies to make them look like cartoons). It got even weirder in the scenes in which Maitland stuck his cartoons in the middle of the actual footage.

A more straightforward documentary presentation of this treasure trove of footage with interviews with the survivors as they look now (or looked when Maitland’s crew interviewed them, since people who were college-age in the 1960’s would be in their 70’s now and even some of the people who were interviewed for this film weren’t still alive when it was completed) would have done far more justice to this story. So would more insight into how weird this crime seemed when it occurred — though it was largely coupled in the public imagination with Richard Speck’s previous rampage in the dorm of a Chicago nursing school, where he knifed eight young women to death (and was held to account for it largely because a ninth person there successfully “played possum,” survived the incident and was the key witness against him in his trial). There’s a chilling montage of all the school shootings since (or at least some of them) played over a commentary Walter Cronkite gave on the CBS Evening News at the time to the effect that “society” was to blame for Whitman’s killings — a trendy 1960’s notion no one takes seriously anymore, especially the Right, which says that the people who do school shootings are just “bad people,” and yet it would be an imposition on our “freedom” to do anything like keeping crazy people from getting guns. (One of the Obama-era federal regulations President Trump and the Republican Congress are determined to get rid of is a ban on people with diagnosed mental illness from buying guns.) Monty Python made fun of the “it’s society’s fault” in one sketch in which a man arrested for murder says that and the cop who arrested him says, “Society? Then let’s bring in the lot of them, too.”

Maitland was more interested in the stories of the victims — particularly Claire Wilson, the pregnant woman who was one of the first people attacked (and her boyfriend, Tom Ekman — whom she’d only been seeing for two months, which means he was not the father of her never-born child — was killed by her side) and who was finally rescued after a young man who had been a corpsman in Viet Nam got three of his friends to carry her from the scene — and the cops who finally ambushed and killed Whitman from his redoubt on the observation deck of the university’s bell tower, than he was in What Made Charles Run — though it was interesting that, like Adam Lanza, Whitman began his rampage at home by killing his mother (and, in Whitman’s case, his wife as well) before he headed to the bell tower and started picking off victims at random. The Whitman shooting deserves a better documentary than this!