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When Mass Shootings Were Abnormal

The powerful documentary ‘Tower,’ about the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas, recalls a time when the country wasn’t prepared to deal with an inexplicable act of public terror. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed.

(Kino Lorber/Go-Valley)
(Kino Lorber/Go-Valley)

When 25-year-old ex-Marine Charles Whitman, armed with a Remington Model 700 and other weapons, climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower on August 1, 1966, and opened fire on his classmates from 300 feet up, there was no ready-made response. There were no such things as SWAT teams. Those would come later — in part, it turns out, thanks to Whitman. Nor was there yet such a thing as a proper EMT, this still being the era of ambulances run by funeral homes. Then again, there had never been a tragedy quite like this.

As the bodies — the death toll eventually reached 15, with more than 30 wounded — amassed across UT’s sunny, spacious campus; as phone lines jammed across the city from all the panicked calls to the police; and as hundreds of students and faculty hiding behind cars and trees became, in a brutishly literal sense, a captive audience to the deaths of their peers, it became the job of everyday people to save and protect each other. Confronted with a novel form of terror, that was easier said than done. One man fleeing the scene ran into Scholz Garten, a restaurant on San Jacinto Boulevard, screaming, “There’s a sniper up on the tower, and he’s shooting people!” People in the restaurant thought it was a joke. The first victim, Claire Wilson (now James), who was 18 at the time and eight months pregnant, lay shot and bleeding on the campus mall next to her mortally wounded boyfriend. When she appealed to a passerby, he yelled at her to get up. “I think he thought it was guerrilla theater,” James, who survived, told Texas Monthly in 2006. It was the ’60s, after all. “We had started doing things like that to bring attention to the war in Vietnam.”

Keith Maitland’s documentary, Tower, now streaming on iTunes, tells the story of a public disrupted by an event it didn’t initially understand. The movie re-creates the 1966 shooting from multiple perspectives, among them: Ramiro Martinez, a police officer who eventually broke into the tower and, with the assistance of another officer and a deputized civilian, killed Whitman; the pregnant James, as well as the people who eventually ran out, despite the danger of being killed, to move her body to safety; and other witnesses who were on campus that day, people who watched from classroom windows or peered around buildings, paralyzed by their fear, guilt, and shock.

Tower was released last year, 2016 being the 50-year anniversary of the event; despite its intense focus on an almost minute-by-minute account of what happened, it’s as much about then as it is about now. It’s one of the first things I thought of on Friday, January 6, when law enforcement officials say an ex-soldier armed with a semiautomatic opened fire in Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport, killing five people and wounding six others. Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed. In 1966, a sniper wreaks havoc on a college campus and an entire community, including local news teams, struggles to get a hold on what’s going on. Today, citizen journalism and a public hardened by expectations of violence cut down response time. Shots ring out, and everyone in the vicinity quickly intuits what that means. The terror of mass shootings is uncanny in that way, looming in the public imagination with a sense of perpetual dread. A shooting could break out almost anywhere, at anytime, and pluck you out of the rhythm of public life at random, and possibly irreversibly. And then what? There’s something disconcerting about our nation’s collective ability to move on.

As a documentary, Tower refuses to move on. It is here to tell a story. As a piece of art, it’s invested in finding a way to make that story a vision — to make us see, and understand, what it means to try to fill the gaps in a collective history such as this. Maitland’s project interrogates this problem in a daring way. An actual reenactment, staged on the University of Texas campus, wouldn’t have been welcome. Thus, the images Maitland and his team concoct are, for the most part, animated. Maitland relies on the technique of rotoscoping, drawing over photographed images to both heighten the physical accuracy of the animation and also, conversely, draw our attention to the differences. “By cutting between archival and animation, ideally seamlessly, we could give the archival footage new life,” Maitland told Filmmaker. “I hope that when viewers reflect on what they’ve seen in Tower, they forget which parts were animated and which were archival.”

This is no cute or cheap auteurist trick. The animation isn’t cartoonish — like, say, the grotesquely satirical reenactments of American history you find in another film about gun violence, Bowling for Columbine. Tower does not invent its images; it uses animation to fill in the blanks the news footage couldn’t. More radically, and urgently, it uses animation to make us imagine the bodies of the survivors, whose testimonies are recounted by actors, back on campus. They narrate their fear, grief, and confusion in seemingly real time, living it on-screen before our eyes.

When a movie camera becomes a weapon, do you feel implicated? I’m thinking of moments like the start of 2012’s Jack Reacher, when the camera imitates the scope of a rifle, scanning a waterfront for victims. It’s not an original move — it’s an allusion to a kind of image I’m not sure played with quite the same force before 1966. The tower shooting is of course neither the first nor the most famous sniper incident to rock the American consciousness. That remains the Kennedy assassination. In fact, there were movies about snipers as early as the ’50s — The Sniper (1952) was about a killing spree targeting women, and the assassin’s tale Murder by Contract (1958) features a rifle scope shot. (It’s thanks to these and other sniper films that I can instantly imagine, with some degree of realism, what it’s like to look through a rifle’s scope at another person.) Yet the mass shooting in Texas did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. In 1968 came Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, in which a blond, blue-eyed ex-soldier kills his mother and wife (as Whitman did the morning of the tower shooting), parks out atop an oil tank near a freeway, and idly shoots drivers. The very title says it all: targets, meaning any, or all, of us.

Jack Reacher and its forebears are assassin movies: Of course they wear the violence of their gaze on their sleeve. What about a movie like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant? The Palme d’Or winner is based in part on the Columbine massacre of 1999. The movie amounts to a day at school that takes a sudden turn toward dispassionate mass violence. But for most of the film, we don’t watch the characters — all high schoolers — so much as we, by way of the camera, stalk them. Van Sant never imitates the scope of a rifle, yet the effect is similar and clear. These victims are prey: not only of their assailants, but also, in a complicated way, of the audience.

The guns, ammunition, and ropes that University of Texas shooter Charles Whitman brought with him to the tower (Getty Images)
The guns, ammunition, and ropes that University of Texas shooter Charles Whitman brought with him to the tower (Getty Images)

Tower doesn’t stalk its victims. It confronts them. Rather, it’s confronted by them. As they narrate their reenactments of the event they — with their oddly detailed, animated eyes — are looking right at us. In his Filmmaker interview, Maitland, a New Jersey native who moved to Texas when he was 12, says he first learned of the tower shooting in seventh grade. While a student at the University of Texas, he became more curious. “As a college student, I walked past the tower everyday for four years,” he said, “and my curiosity only grew because there was a vacuum there, both on campus and beyond. There had been very little to glean from this tragedy because it had been kept at arm’s length for so long.” According to Texas Monthly, the first memorial to the victims of the shooting, a garden, was installed in 1999. In the intervening decades, there was nothing: no memorials or plaques, just the stray bullet holes in the campus buildings, which disappeared beneath subsequent years’ new layers of plaster.

That silence was disrupted in December 2015, when pro-gun groups organized a mock mass shooting to be held on the school’s grounds, an effort to eradicate the campus’s gun-free zones. (The event was moved.) Memories were reignited again last year, when a controversial new gun law allowing concealed handguns on college campuses in the state passed by the Texas legislature went into effect. Infuriatingly, that law went into effect on August 1, 2016: the 50-year anniversary of the tower shooting, to the day.

It seems that since at least August 1, 1966, school safety has been tied to a fear of mass violence. There was a time when such fear was free to lie dormant — then came Columbine. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 15 people, including themselves, on April 20, 1999, I was in sixth grade; by the time I’d gotten home from school, my mother, glued to the news, was certain she’d never let me go back. She relented — but something had changed. Some time after that, we had a bomb threat in school. We’d had bomb threats before — they were a semi-common prank pulled by bored delinquents, like pulling the fire alarm. This was ultimately no different — except this time, for the first time, we were scared.

Harris and Klebold lived on, for me, in the footage of them stalking their school cafeteria in battle get-ups with huge guns. I have no conception of the event outside of the pictures of their classmates crying in the school parking lot. “Trench coat mafia” had no referent for me — trench coats had no referent, really — until I saw them in the news. Similarly, the 1966 tower shooting is an event inseparable from its coverage in the news, making the lack of real reckoning with it over the years a mysterious problem. On the other hand, its afterlife in images explains how quickly it became fodder for movies, starting with Targets. Much later, in 1995’s Higher Learning, starring Omar Epps and Laurence Fishburne, an insecure white undergrad (played by Michael Rapaport) opens fire from a tower on his college campus for a supremacist gang initiation. He specifically targets black students, unlike Whitman, and yet Whitman’s place in the cultural imagination gets reiterated nevertheless. The 1966 event itself provided us with 15 minutes of news footage available today. But those silent, gray images of students ducking bullets to retrieve their classmates’ bodies, and of gun smoke billowing from a hole on the observation deck of the tower as Whitman fired his shots, were seared into the nation’s memory.

The stark contribution of Maitland’s film is to try to meet this discourse on its own turf. The rotoscoped retellings, which hop from narrator to narrator, begin in the gray tones of the news footage. Detailed accounts unspool from survivors in their younger, animated forms, sometimes superimposed onto the news footage, which props them up into their own histories like matte paintings in Hollywood movies. Their narratives are constantly interrupted by percussive gunshots that don’t stop until Whitman is dead. And when those bullets strike bodies, the images explode into color, which eventually takes over. These breaks in form culminate in a turn I didn’t initially see coming: Toward the end the animation ceases and the rotoscoped, younger narrators are replaced, in the present, by the actual survivors. It’s like watching time collapse.

It’s in part a tribute to its subjects’ survival, but it’s also a nod to the power of testimony, and the violence of so many years of silence. As they speak, the movie’s survivors become more than journalism or imagery: They become real. So does their pain. Tower’s immediate focus is on the victims — very little time is spent unpacking the inner life or motivations of Whitman — but this isn’t exactly a film about victimhood. It’s a film about history. A foundational event like this can knock your sense of the world — your physical sense of the world, as a huge public space with you somewhere in it — off its anchor. Tower valiantly tries to restore that anchor, even as it knows the next shooting, whenever it is, will defy it.