Monday, October 24, 2016

Doc Watch: Tower (2016)

About thirty minutes into Tower (2016), I realized that the soundtrack to the film included the ever-present sound of cicadas, a tree-dwelling insect which emits a steady humming that all Central Texans know as the droning background noise of the hottest days of summer.  I'd tuned the sound out the same way we all do, and I began to realize part of why the film felt so immediate - and why the film is so effective.  What the film captures is very real, from glimpses of the University of Texas campus to the sound to the casual chatter about campus life, torn apart on August 1, 1966.

I'd wanted to see this film from when the producers first released footage maybe a year ago.  Then friends saw it as SXSW and had positive things to say, and I was encouraged that the documentary would do the event whatever justice could be done.

Fifty years ago this past August, a gunman took a locker full of firearms to the top of the tower at the University of Texas at Austin and, for about ninety minutes, wreaked havoc on The 40 Acres.  If I take the event a bit personally, I was raised in Austin decades after the shooting, but in the shadow of the Tower as I attended events and camps on the campus.  And, of course, I spent five years attending school at UT and I've been employed at the University of Texas for a something like twelve years, all told.

I've written twice before about the event, once in 2012 and once this year when I attended the ceremony for the newly established memorial north of the tower.  I won't go into details much as I have recently discussed the tragedy itself.

The film is remarkable.  Constructed from interviews, new and old, those involved share their version of events.  Most of the film is a reconstruction not via still camera shots interspliced with talking heads, but utilizing modern technologies of rotoscoping and animation, paired with actors (transformed into animation) who both re-enact the talking head interviews and play the real people as they were at that age, on that day.  Unable to film on campus (UT has a policy of not being used as a film set, especially in regards to films about the tower shootings), the film's creators went to great lengths to place their animated versions of characters in the locations in and around the tower, layering shots seamlessly and rotoscoped into a single image.  Occasional news footage of the day is merged into shots or becomes a shot itself.  For longtime Austinites, that footage may be familiar.

Within the animation, stylistic choices are made with color, detail, design. And whether you haven't been to campus in decades or hear the chimes every fifteen minutes during a work day - the sound of the clock tower ringing will pull you right back to campus.  The flexibility of the animation technique allows for the sort of punctuation, specific focus and abstraction of visuals that work perfectly in context here drawing the viewer into the point of view of the individuals interviewed, but would feel terribly out of place were the re-creations all live action.

In short, it's a brilliantly directed film.

On paper, I wouldn't have believed the technique would have been effective, maybe found it pretentious at best and disrespectful at worst.  Instead, while the film remains true to the look and feel of 1966, it bridges the gap between fifty years ago and now, pulling those ninety minutes into the present with a searing immediacy and an intimacy that, frankly, totally surprised me.

From the perspective of victims, of a witness, of news reporter Neal Spelce, of a young man who took action, police officers and a Co-Op employee who helped storm the observation deck, we get a varied view of how events unfolded, what was happening on the ground and in their minds as the hot afternoon unfolded.

We hear stories of bravery, or cowardice, of action and inaction, regret and shock.  No one escapes unscathed.  It's a memory that haunts all of them, long after the scars have healed.  It certainly makes you wonder what you'd do, what you're prepared to do.

It's important to mention that the acting in the film is extraordinarily strong - always an odd comment for a documentary - but had the actors not fully realized the roles with which they were cast, had these been talents who sounded false, the entire illusion would have fallen apart.

It's not until very, very late in the film that the assassin is named.  This film is not about the why's and wherefore's of the killer, trying to answer the unanswerable.  It's about the people who were within striking distance of the tower that day, and it attempts to capture the shock, horror and bewilderment of a type of atrocity occurring that has no real precedent, makes no sense, and leaves them not asking "why" so much as "what do I do in this moment?"  And, in the final quarter of the film, "what do I do now?" as the animation gives way to live action.

The modern-era pieces included talking head interviews as the animation fades away and we meet Claire, the woman who was pregnant when she was struck walking across the expansive plaza in front of the Main Building, one of her rescuers, Neal Spelce and a young man, now fifty years on, who was delivering papers when he was struck on Guadalupe Street.  The film alludes to the fact that the university did not cover up the shooting, but they immediately went quiet on the topic, back to business as usual - and you wonder how much better off all would have been had they taken the time to mourn.

It's hard to talk about how and why the film draws out an emotional response, but I found it hard not to react viscerally to many scenes and I don't think Jamie and I really talked for several minutes after leaving the movie as, I freely confess, I was recomposing myself.  It's certainly possible those without connections to campus and inheritors of the tragedy's after-effects on the university would see it in quite the same way.  But I suspect that it's a powerful enough film, and a relevant enough film, that it will stand as more than a novelty or historical recreation.  

It may not be the final word on the topic, but the documentary - which, if it has an agenda is to memorialize the victims and remember them in a time of madness rather than picking over the bones of the monster who perpetrated the act - is as effective a memorial as I'd want for my fellow students and alumni.

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