American Gun Culture and the Political Aesthetics of Keith Maitland’s 'Tower'

Tower seeks to awake us from our ideological slumber by returning us to the first mass school shooting in modern US history. Are we awake, yet?

In America, school shootings have become a national norm. Americans live in the wealthiest nation-state in the world and one that lauds itself as a global leader, and yet, we have collectively acquiesced to the fact that school shootings have become a fact of life. All too frequently, our days are interrupted with “Breaking News” of yet another school shooting, so much so that such “breaking news” no longer registers as interrupting our everyday.

The mass school shooting at Sandy Hook appeared to be a turning point in recent US history. After a lone gunman entered an elementary school and killed 20 first-graders and six adults, national polls made clear that the vast majority of Americans, who identified as Republicans and Democrats, desired tighter regulations of the gun industry. President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, made gun control a priority, specifically targeting the “gun show loophole” in which under federal law, private sellers are not required to perform background checks, including at gun shows, and even more, private sellers are not required to ask for identification or record the sale.

And yet, even after Sandy Hook, Congress refused to pass any legislation to close this loophole. In fact, no changes were made to federal gun laws. A year after Sandy Hook, regulations against guns were relaxed and new laws passed that strengthened the rights and freedoms of gun owners. In Do Guns Make Us Free? Democracy and the Armed Society (2015), Firmin DeBrabander writes, “This fits with a longer pattern of gun rights groups getting their way, despite the mass shootings that have punctuated our news cycle with alarming regularity.” And this fits America's culture of political apathy. When mass gun violence occurs, we temporarily mourn, devour endless stories about the killer, and move on with our day, refusing to stay focused and recognize that we have a mass shooting epidemic.

Keith Maitland’s 2016 documentary Tower seeks to awake us from our ideological slumber by returning us to the first mass school shooting in modern US history. To help break our culture of resignation, Maitland details the horrors of the UT-Austin massacre as a way to both historicize, contextualize, and critique the present.

On 1 August 1966 Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old engineering student and former Marine sharpshooter entered the University of Texas Tower. Once inside, the killer took the elevator to the tower’s observation deck. From this high vantage point of 307 feet, he began an unremitting rampage that lasted 96 minutes, killing 17 people and wounding more than 30.

Tower is an activist, interventionist work that seeks to re-frame how we see and think about mass shootings. Maitland de-familiarizes mass shootings by refusing the two dominant modes of framing this national epidemic: fetishizing violence and fetishizing the shooter. As Maitland’s documentary exemplifies, aesthetic experimentation is often necessary to create political art.

As progressive aesthetic philosophies such as Russian Formalism teaches, one of the powers of art is to de-familiarize the seemingly fixed every day. Such art makes “reality” seem strange and alien through various aesthetic techniques that distance the reader/viewer from what is coded by the dominant ideology as “natural”, “normal”, and “unchangeable”. To break the ideological spell in which mass shootings have been naturalized, Maitland practices several experimental aesthetics including, perhaps most conspicuously, his use of animation.

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Maitland’s eschews the dominant mode of documentary realism, and instead, uses animation to re-create an almost minute-by-minute dramatization of the UT-Tower massacre. More specifically, Maitland used Rotoscoping, an animation technique in which artists trace over movie footage, image by image. After intensive research and collecting the stories of 200 people, including survivors and witnesses, Maitland shot the reenactments of the mass shooting primarily in his backyard, using a 40-foot palm tree as a surrogate for the tower. Maitland then gave all the footage to the animation studio Minnow Mountain where a team, led by animation director Craig Staggs (A Scanner Darkly), spent over 18 months rotoscoping 290,000 individual frames.

This animation aesthetic distances the viewer from the numbing realism of news footage and makes revisiting this scene of violence a more ethical experience. Rather than fetishizing the violence and reproducing it with photographic precision --- an aesthetic that has become almost synonymous with corporate American entertainment -- the movie’s use of animation maintains a respective distance from the visceral horrors of history. When someone is shot, for example, their animated body turns bright white and the surrounding screen becomes saturated in red. This aesthetic captures the terror of the day, but by using animation, Maitland negates the dominant trend of American cameras to sensationalize violence.

Maitland’s use of animation, though, is not continuous. Such animation is frequently intercut with archival footage. This juxtaposition between animation and the archive enables and enhances the aesthetics of shock. More specifically, when archival images puncture the animation, the former retains its visceral power. When, for example, an animated sequence of the sniper firing from the Tower is intercut with archival footage of the same image, the force of the real is felt.

Just as Tower experiments with visuals, so too does it experiment with sound. More specifically, it dramatizes the chasm separating the historical visuals of 1966 from the popular sounds of 1966.

The movie opens in a state of emergency as a reporter’s voice warns all residents of Austin to “stay away” from the university area due to an active sniper atop the UT Tower, “firing at will”. We then hear two gun shots fire, the opening sounds of what will be over 90 minutes of terror.

But the movie loops back in time, allowing survivors to discuss what they were doing that morning before the mass shootings began. When the movie loops back to the hours preceding the shooting, a soundtrack of innocence begins. The first song we hear is The Mamas & the Papas, “Monday, Monday”. As we watch young students walk outside in the blazing sun, unaware of the horror about to begin, we hear lyrics which, from the distance of time, are tragically ironic: “Oh Monday morning, you gave me no warning”. 1 August 1966 was a Monday.

Maitland didn't select this song for the sake of irony alone. Rather, “Monday, Monday” was one of the pop hits of 1966, and the movie’s soundtrack is comprised of hits from that year. Music critics widely recognize 1966 as one of the best years in popular music history. The year produced canonized albums including Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and The Beatles’ Revolver; and many popular hits, including those by The Animals, Buffalo Springfield, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and The Supremes. Such artists' work is heard throughout the documentary.

The soundtrack of this ostensible “greatest year of music” is at odds with the visual horrors unfolding on screen. Tower, in other words, stages the disjunction between then popular culture and what would become the nation’s mass-shooting culture. Music critic Steven Hyden writes that the music of 1966 is still “influencing pop culture in ways that still can be felt”. If the musical culture from 1966 is still shaping the present, so too is the culture of mass shooting that proliferated since that same year.

Tower was released on the 50th anniversary of the UT-Austin mass shooting. Criminologist Grant Duwe, author of Mass Murder in the United States, claims that this shooting is “the bellwether for the unprecedented rise in mass public shootings in the last half-century.” In the 50 years prior to the massacre in Austin, there were 25 mass public shootings. Since the Austin massacre, there have been 149 mass shootings. But Duwe’s numbers are woefully inaccurate, for reasons that will be detailed below.

As Tower makes clear, America has created a national culture that refuses to recognize its growing epidemic of mass shootings. Tellingly, when Tower was being made, there was not a single memorial to the victims of that day. This failure to memorialize becomes an explicit theme late in the movie. Reflecting back on that day, many survivors express dismay and disbelief that the campus, close to 50 years later, refuses to recognize its own violent history. Like the rest of the nation, the university practiced a culture of disavowal. Classes resumed as normal the following day, and for 50 years, you could go to UT-Austin campus and not know that this was a site of a modern massacre.

This refusal to memorialize, to publicly remember, is symptomatic of our national culture. Art, though, ventures and stays where the dominant culture won't tread. (Only after the movie was made did UT-Austin create and unveil its first memorial to the victims of that day.)

Tower is experimental in its form and in its focus. In contrast to so many documentaries and media coverage of mass shootings that are framed by fetishizing the killer, Tower focuses exclusively on the victims and survivors.

The movie follows several individuals who survived that day, including, most prominently, Claire Wilson James, an 18-year-old incoming freshman. She was the first person the gunman shot.

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