(USA 2016)

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, an engineering student at the University of Texas, Austin, killed his mother and his wife before taking over the observation deck of the 30-story Main Building on campus (“The Tower”). Known as the infamous “Texas Tower Sniper,” he then shot random passers-by on the mall below, terrorizing the campus for over an hour and a half. When it was over, 17 victims including him were dead and dozens were wounded ( Quite possibly the first mass shooting on a school campus in the United States—and definitely the first of this magnitude—the event resonates nearly 50 years later.

Keith Maitland’s Tower is a sort of oral history of this tragic day, and it’s compelling from the outset. I may seem to be stating the obvious here—how could the story of such an event be anything but compelling? I haven’t mentioned that the whole thing is animated—as in, a cartoon. I must admit that I was skeptical. Turning a combination of archival footage and reenactments into rotoscopes that have an offbeat King of the Hill quality sounds dubiously unfitting for many reasons. Nonetheless, Tower works unsparingly well.

With barely a mention of Whitman—his name comes up toward the end, and only incidentally—Maitland chooses to focus on those caught in the confusion. He doesn’t say who is shooting or why, putting viewers into the thick of it. He let’s survivors, heroes, and witnesses narrate their ordeals: what they were doing, who was with them, and what happened to them. Claire Wilson (Violett Beane), a pregnant teenager who was the first one shot on campus, tells about seeing her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, die right next to her and losing her baby while she lied in a pool of her blood on the hot concrete. She also talks about the woman, Rita Starpattern (Josephine McAdam), who played dead to stay with her and keep her conscious until help could get to her. Aleck Hernandez (Aldo Ordoñez) tells about being shot in the shoulder while delivering newspapers with his cousin riding on his bicyle with him. Allen Crum (Chris Doubek), a middleaged bookstore employee, tells about dodging bullets to help a victim on the ground and winding up on the observation deck while Whitman was still shooting. Austin police officers Houston McCoy (Blair Jackson) and Ramiro Martinez (Louie Arnette) talk separately about their roles in bringing down Whitman.

Each account is unflinchingly brutal with lots of personal detail. The animation is an odd but effective way to bring us close to the action in a way that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Considering how it’s presented, Tower is surprisingly emotional and personal. I haven’t seen a documentary like this before.

96 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B-

Janis: Little Girl Blue

(USA 2015)

Of several celebrity biography documentaries I’ve seen this year, two stand out: Amy (as in Winehouse) and Janis: Little Girl Blue. Interestingly, both performers had similar personalities, made similar music, and traveled similar roads that ended early (at the same age, no less). Both biographies also present their subjects in an imperfect albeit human light.

Narrated by Cat Power, director Amy Berg lets Joplin tell her own story through letters she wrote to her family after leaving Texas for San Francisco in the early Sixties. Interviews with her sister, former band mates, and even Dick Cavett, who famously discussed Joplin’s upcoming ten-year high school reunion on his show less than two months before her death (and who curiously disclosed in his interview for this film that he “may or may not” have been intimate with her), round out her story. What emerges is an ambitious outcast searching for love and acceptance. Two anecdotes are particularly telling and disturbing: a fraternity voted Joplin “ugliest man on campus” during her short tenure at the University of Texas at Austin during the fall of 1962, and footage from her aforementioned ten-year reunion suggests that her old classmates ignored her when she showed up. Weird, considering she was already famous by then. Janis: Little Girl Blue shows a vulnerable side of Joplin that I didn’t know she had.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A