american-gun-culture-and-the-political-aesthetics-of-keith-maitland

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.

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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.

Tragic Fantasy

To this day, Congress, clearly in the pockets of the NRA, prohibits any systemic research on gun violence.

Earlier that morning, Claire and her 18-year-old boyfriend Thomas Eckman took an anthropology test, and afterward, went to the student union to relax and drink coffee. When tragedy strikes, small choices become magnified. Claire and Tom left the cafeteria to put money in the parking meter so their car wouldn’t be ticketed. If they didn’t get up at that moment and begin walking to their car, perhaps Tom would be alive today. And perhaps Claire’s baby would be, as well. When Claire was shot, she was eight-months pregnant.

Just before noon, the 25-year-old student, perched high on the UT Tower, used the scope of his rifle to target Claire’s visibly pregnant stomach and fired. Upon being shot, Claire collapsed on the scorching cement. Claire recalls being fearful that if she moved, the sniper would shoot again. She also recalls how hot the sun was that day. And she recalls the horror of not feeling her baby move. That day, Claire lost her boyfriend, her baby, and the ability to ever become pregnant again.

If this was a typical American documentary, the preponderance of the movie would be spent delving into the mind of the killer, trying to find clues into his background that could help explain how such a killer came to be. But Tower thwarts this national desire. It wasn’t one individual who is responsible for the mass murder. Rather, as the movie’s structure makes clear, it’s our national culture that must be interrogated, and more importantly, changed.

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Just as the movie begins with Claire, so too does it end with her. Claire offers a different way to think about the violence of that day. She refuses to demonize the sniper. In fact, she empathizes with the man who killed her boyfriend and baby. At the movie’s end, Claire looks through a 1966 Life article that features the UT-Austin massacre. Claire stops at a spread devoted to analyzing the killer. The headline, stretching across two pages, reads: “From Toddler to U.S. Marine, He Showed an Easy Familiarity With Guns”. Beneath the bolded, enlarged letters is an image of the sniper as a toddler, standing on a beach, wearing a big smile and balancing two rifles, one in each hand, parallel to his body.

In contrast to Life’s approach that pathologizes the sniper, Claire looks at the young boy with love and sees his innocence and potential. Today, Claire is a teacher and she is keenly aware of how society can stunt and deform healthy developments. Claire says, “I love that age. So much promise and so much hope.” She admits she still suffers nightmares from that day and suggests that the trauma can be debilitating. And yet, looking at the picture of the sniper as a toddler, she says, “How can I hate somebody like that?” In many ways, the sniper was made in and by America.

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Perhaps the most experimental attribute of the movie is not its use of animation, or the ways in which it periodically loops back in time, but rather, its aesthetics of refusal. The movie refuses to focus on the sniper and it refuses to even show his image, except as a three-year-old boy. In the image from Life, the rifles’ butts are wedged into the sand and their barrels reach taller than the boy, symbolically suggesting that this young boy is the product of a larger structure, a culture unconditionally committed to guns regardless of changing historical conditions.

The movie’s closing moments features Walter Cronkite’s reaction to the UT-Austin mass shooting. Similar to Claire and similar to the movie’s form, Cronkite refuses to focus on the killer alone. Instead, he makes his editorial about our culture committed to mass violence. While his exhorting editorial unfurls, the movie cuts away from Cronkite and shows scenes from more recent mass shootings at schools and involving students. Cronkite’s voice continues as we see archival footage from gun massacres at Columbine High School (13 killed, 21 wounded); Virginia Tech (32 killed, 17 wounded); Aurora, Colorado (12 killed, 70 wounded); Newton, Connecticut (20 first-graders and six adults killed, two injured), Umpqua Community College (eight students and one professor killed, nine injured), and others. Cronkite ends his newscast by saying that the killer’s crime was society’s crime.

Cronkite’s insistence that the nation reflect on its material conditions that allow gun violence to flourish has been largely denied by the political machine. To this day, Congress, in the pockets of the NRA, prohibits any systemic research on gun violence.

In the ’90s, criminologist Gary Kleck was one of the first scholars to recognize and study mass shootings as a “unique form of gun violence”. Kleck’s study was inspired by two high-profile mass rampages, the 1993 California Street and Long Island Rail Road attacks, which helped give momentum to the 1994 federal Assault Weapon Ban (AWB). However, as Louis Klarevas writes in his 2016 book, Rampage Nation, “Despite the efforts of Kleck and a few others, analysis of mass shootings remained largely dormant until 2012, when the Aurora and the Newton massacres revived interest in the topic.” Yet even with this renewed interest, today, we still don’t have a consensus of what constitutes a “mass shooting”. This failure to even have a working social concept reveals the power of the NRA. Tellingly, due to the influence of the NRA, the Assault Weapon Ban was allowed to expire in 2004.

In 2007, Grant Duwe defined a mass shooting as the killing of four or more people in a public space without relation to gang fighting or drugs shootings. But as Klarevas argues in Rampage Nation, published nine years later, such a definition is vastly incomplete. Why, for example, must the criteria of a mass shooting be people killed rather than people shot? Moreover, why should mass shootings that involve gang violence and drug deals be excluded? Do black and brown lives not matter? In contrast, Klarevas offers a definition of a mass shooting as “Any violent attack that results in four or more individuals incurring gunshot wounds”, regardless of context and motivation.

Recently, in response to the federal government’s continuing disavowal of mass shooting as a national crisis, Reddit users began to track every mass shooting in the United States that resulted in four or more people being shot (the same definition used by Klarevas). In the first year of tracking, 2013, the Mass Shooting Tracker identified 339 mass shootings. In 2014, that number slightly dropped to 325 mass shootings, but in 2015, the number spiked to 371 mass shootings. This means that, on average, there was more than one mass shooting a day in the United States.

To put this in perspective to what Americans perceive to be the biggest threat to US safety, terrorism, in the ten years since 9/11, terrorists have killed 21 people in the United States. That’s less than the number of people killed in one morning in Newton, Connecticut. Of course, it can be argued that the reason there has been a precipitous drop in terrorist killings is because the federal government took an active role in securing airports and other socially shared spaces. In contrast, the federal government won’t even recognize that we have a mass shooting epidemic.

Like all progressive art, Tower aesthetically distances us from the present and encourages us to think structurally. The movie ends by making us think about our culture of mass shooting and I will end with one concrete example that enables our mass shooting epidemic to proliferate: AR-15s, which one legislator identifies as “Our own American weapon of mass destruction.” This was the weapon of choice in the massacres of Aurora, Colorado and in Newton, Connecticut.

In 1961, the Pentagon, under the leadership of Robert McNamara, developed the AR-15, a semiautomatic assault rifle, for combat purposes in Vietnam. The advantages of this new weapon were immediately recognized and praised: “Army studies showed that a five-man squad armed with AR-15s had as much kill potential as 11-man squad armed with the M14 [the army’s previous standard rifle]”. What was once an assault rifle designed exclusively for the military by Colt is now being produced by more than 30 firearm manufacturers, and today, civilians own more than five million AR-15s. As one firearm seller said, “The AR-15 now is probably the economic engine of the gun industry.”

In 2012, in the quiet suburb of Aurora, a Ph.D. student walked into a midnight screening of The Dark Knight. Using an AR-15, equipped with a 100-round extended capacity, he opened fire and shot 70 people. The force of the AR-15 was so powerful that several rounds blasted through the drywall, striking three people in the neighboring theater.

Comilla Sasson was an emergency-room doctor on duty at the University of Colorado Medical Center that day. One of the first victims she saw that night was 22-year-old Farrah Soundani. The force of a single .223 round fired from the AR-15 caused her “stomach and intestines [to] literally spill […] out of her body, forcing her to hold them in her hands as she was transported to the hospital in a police cruiser.” After that night of seeing dozens of victims, Dr. Sasson said. “I’ve seen a lot of gunshot wounds in my life but those were absolutely, completely different than anything I’ve ever seen. [… ] These are the kinds of wounds that our folks over in Afghanistan are seeing, and here I am sitting in Aurora, Colorado, seeing these kinds of things.”

Tower ends with a fantasy scene. The final scene features a pregnant Claire and Thomas in animation. In this fantasy sequence, the couple, arm-in-arm, walk towards the Tower, strolling innocently to class. What a tragic world we live in that our fantasies involve imagining public spaces that are safe from the real possibility of mass gun violence.

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