“Are there any bad guys in here?” a SWAT team member clumsily asks, attempting to add distorted and misplaced levity onto a swaying Jenga tower of visceral fear. All of us look at each other with concerned faces, blank stares, forced smiles of understanding. He instructs us on the formation that he wants us to exit the classroom in. Long rifles are drawn. Black boots. Armor that appears to be a deep, Mariana Trench blue. The tactical group circles us as we make our way through the campus. A school of fish, glistening with Kevlar jackets and JanSport backpacks in the hot sun.
That was my part of my experience at Santana High School, where two of my fellow students were killed and thirteen others wounded. The intense, uncompromising, and sweat drenched “Tower” brings back these memories in fluorescent, sometimes monochrome, detail. The pangs of confusion. Prisms of sun reflecting off of a school’s architecture. The violent pattering of hurried footsteps. Barking echoes in the middle of an empty quad. Bodies lying prone in prickly grass. A discarded binder as a sidecar to a single lost and capsized shoe.
In great detail and empathy, director Keith Maitland’s “Tower” recreates the chilling 1966 shootings at the University of Texas at Austin. Using animation that warbles, juts, and vibrates like Richard Linklater’s “Waking Life”, the documentary marries reenactments and live footage to create a kaleidoscope of uncanny valleys. Colors bleed and pop, sometimes dissolve and fizzle. The lines of the campus wobble and occasionally become sharply detailed based on the situation, emotion, and first-hand account. Because we are given several vantage points through a myriad of recollections, we see humanity, terror, and courage in different tones, shapes, and colors. Maitland’s erudite juxtaposition of animation and actual footage hands the experience a heightened psychology. There are impacting quotes by survivors of this tragedy that will genuinely shake you to your marrow. Recreations that place you in the dour and sun-maimed conditions of that sweltering August day.
“Tower”, now playing at Digital Gym Cinema, explores many topics with great care: Guilt, love, compassion, primordial instincts, phantom limbs, and the ephemeral nature of urgency in the face of obstruction and horror. This is the most intimate documentary of the year, where we look upon life with not only quizzical and frustrated expressions, but with love and undaunted empathy.