‘Tower’ sheds light into the Texas Tower massacre

Near the end of “Tower,” is a montage of news clips — too familiar scenes from Columbine and Virginia Tech and Umpqua Community College. It puts Keith Maitland’s 93-minute documentary, “Tower,” into perspective — that “there are monsters and they walk around us.”

Directed by Maitland, “Tower” is a chilling recreation of the 96 minutes near the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966.

Maitland grew up hearing the first-person stories of the Texas Tower shooting when he was in seventh grade. After reading Pamela Colloff’s 2006 Texas Monthly article, Maitland was inspired to capture some of these narratives in a documentary. Over the course of six weeks, his project raised $70,000 on IndieGogo.

Maitland and producer Susan Thomson interviewed more than 100 eyewitnesses to research the film. The interviews are the basis of the film’s narrative, which began on the steps outside the campus tower. Tom Eckman (voiced by Cole Bee Wilson) and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Claire Wilson (voiced by Violet Beane) were heading to the parking meter near campus when they were shot. It was “like stepping on an live wire, like I’ve been electrocuted,” Wilson describes.

Alternating between animation, grainy archival footage, photos and more recent interviews, “Tower” lets us live through the events of August 1, 1966. Interviews are dubbed and animated to allow us to picture the younger shelves of Texas Tower shooting survivors. We don’t see actual interview footage of much older versions of cops Ramiro Martinez (voiced by Louie Arnette) and Houston McCoy (voiced by Blair Jackson), KTBC anchor Neal Spelce (voiced by Monty Muir) and others until the end of the film.

This technique allows the animators to recreate events and emotions from 50 years ago. We see hope in bright colors — like the vivid, orangey-red hair of Rita Starpattern (voiced by Josephine McAdam), a women who ran into the face of danger. And for the bleakest moments, they strip the animation of color so all we see are black and white. As we listen to the sound of gunfire, white silhouettes of people fall over a crimson red background.

“Tower” is emotionally draining documentary, yet it’s an important testimonial of the unfathomable events that plague our country. Rather than focus on the killer though (his name is only mentioned briefly at the end), Maitland makes sure the stories of the 13 people killed and the many more wounded are remembered forever.

“Tower” was directed by Keith Maitland and premiered in Western New York as part of the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 


Moving into an ‘American Horror Story’: season one review

Ryan Murphy is known for creating freaks. His melodramatic hit television dramedy “Glee” stars the teenaged rejects of the McKinley High School show choir.

His newest Frankensteins are even better. I’m talking about the revolving cast of characters in FX’s “American Horror Story” (2011).

At the center of its 12-episode pilot season is troubled couple Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton). After Ben cheated on his wife with his student Hayden McClaine (played by the wonderful Kate Mara of “House of Cards”), Ben, Vivien and their teenaged daughter Violet (played by Vera Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa) decide to literally “move on” from the affair, taking up residence in a beautiful 1920s Victorian-style Los Angeles mansion.

Of course, the Harmons aren’t the only ones residing in what’s dubbed the “Murder House.” Its tenants include the house’s founders and former residents including surgeon Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and his wife Nora (Lily Rabe); housekeeper Moira O’Hara (played by Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge); gay couple Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears); and next-door neighbors Constance (Jessica Lange) and Addie Langdon (Jamie Brewer).

“American Horror Story” is a culmination of spooky ghost stories from campfire tales like Bloody Mary to scary film creations including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk also draw inspiration from real-life murders including the unsolved Black Dahlia case and the Columbine massacre.

Evan Peters, who plays a deeply disturbed teenager who falls in love with Violet, channels a young Christian Slater from Michael Lehmann’s dark comedy “Heathers.” Constance’s a southern Sue Sylvester — biting, racist and cruel, but also a little sad.

“One of the many comforts of having children is knowing one’s youth has not fled but merely been passed down to a new generation,” she says. “They say when a parent dies, a child feels his own mortality. But when a child dies, it’s immortality that a parent loses.”

“American Horror Story” is chilling and creepy, feeding off our insecurities. But that’s what makes it so addictive. We want to see who or what’s behind that door or under that floorboard if only to ease our pounding hearts and racing minds.

While “American Horror Story” is an exaggerated and perverse reflection of humanity, we see bits of ourselves in murderers and psychopaths. We begin to understand their wants and motives. And how easy it is to lose one’s mind. That’s perhaps the scariest thing of all.

But like stumbling through a “haunted” attraction on Halloween, “American Horror Story” is scary good fun. Because in the back of our minds, we know these actors can’t reach beyond your tiny television or laptop screens. They can’t grab you and take you into their world. This mirror into death only makes you feel alive.

‘Easy Prey’: kids falling through the cracks of bullying and mental illness


Even if you haven’t lived through the Columbine High School shootings, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the UC Santa Barbara shooting, or the more than five dozens mass shootings in the last three decades, Anne Marie Cummings’ short film “Easy Prey” is easy to relate to.

Written by Cummings, Evan Stewart Eisenberg and Effie Johnson, the 37-minute film is “The Laramie Project” of school shootings. “Easy Prey” is a fictional story centered on six monologues, but that doesn’t mean it’s less real. If anything, the film’s direct interviews offers an immediacy that we don’t always get with these tragedies.

Edited by Marilyn Rivchin, the film follows a dramatic mockumentary style, featuring five upstate New York actors and one New York City actor. When the film begins, we meet Paula (Brenda Aulbach), a distraught schoolteacher who was there when 17-year-old Josh (Cole Long) shot track star Adriel before committing suicide.

“How could Josh — one of my students — one of my own students, do such a mindless thing,” says Paula.

Directed and filmed by Cummings, “Easy Prey” allows us to delve into the minds of the teachers, parents, friends and innocent bystanders. Mrs. Meyers (Moira Haupt) still talks to her son Adriel even though he’s deceased. His best friend Carl (Ian Whitt) says Josh has changed in the last six months prior to the incident. Cafe owner Dale (Tim Mollen) says the shootings are part of a larger culture where people don’t really communicate.

These messages are reinforced in Sage Francis’ poignant indie hip hop single, “The Best of Times,” and Hank Roberts’ atmospheric song “Peaceful Mind,” which underscores the film.

Cummings lays out her film like a game of “Clue”; each monologue is peppered with nuggets about what happened while providing commentary on bullying and gun violence.

Math teacher Ethan (Tim Perry) questions how Josh could have gotten a gun. According to a Mother Jones’ study, almost 50 percent weapons of weapons involved in U.S. mass shootings between 1982 and 2012 were obtained legally.

“It’s gotten to the point that I dread logging into CNN every morning because I don’t want to hear or see another shooting,” says Ethan.

“Easy Prey” isn’t an easy film to watch; it’s never easy to watch bullying. But it forces us to look at the hard truths — the aftermath of these massacres beyond the 30-second soundbites. Even when the news forgets, people remember and live on.

As Francis raps in “The Best of Times,” “It’s not the end of the world.” Even though it might feel like it.

“Easy Prey” will be screened at Cinemapolis at 7 p.m. on October 1. The actors and writers will be available for a Q&A following the free screening. The film will be available online from October 2, 2014 to October 2, 2015.

The film was produced by the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca in association with the PACERS National Bullying Prevention Center.

Hirsch’s ‘Bully’ is a fist to your heart

Adults don’t get it. Kids are mean. And parents who do get it are powerless in their roles as protectors. That seems to be the central message in Lee Hirsch’s documentary “Bully.”

Following the stories of five families, “Bully” is an 94-minute documentary about the persistent problem of bullying. Twelve-year-old Alex Libby’s “friends” sit on him and strangle him and poke him with pencils every day on bus rides to and back from school. Eleven-year-old Ty Smalley and 17-year-old Tyler Long committed suicide because they couldn’t take it anymore. Fourteen-year-old Ja’Meya Jackson brought a  hand gun on a bus to ward off the bullies — which leads to her charges of felony. And 16-year-old Kelby Johnson was picked on because she was a lesbian.

While balancing the multiple narratives helps the documentary’s pacing, it’s hard to keep track of all the stories — and sometimes the film loses focus as it bounces between one story to the next. Names and stories are weaved into one collective message: bullying sucks. But while Hirsch argues that bullying is a hopeless epidemic, the many case studies are overwhelming to watch.

With the recent shootings and suicides, “Bully” might explain the Adam Lanza’s or the Dylan Klebold’s. The stories are immensely raw and personal — more than making up for some of the fuzzy focus, shaky shots and convoluted narratives. You can’t watch this film without your heart clenching in painful knots as you empathize with the kids and parents. Your chest boils with anger at the school administration’s apathy. And while the sentiments of “adults don’t get it” and “kids are mean” are universally-known — it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

“Bully” was filmed, directed, written and produced by Lee Hirsch. It was co-produced and co-written with Cynthia Lowen.