Saturday, January 21, 2017

Faulty Tower

There were two different times I was going to be able to see Keith Maitland's Tower for free, but I ultimately paid for it, realizing only moments later that I didn't need to.

And so it was that four nights before my list closes, I finally struggled to the ground one of 2016's most elusive movies, a rotoscoped recreation of the killing spree by sniper Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966.

Rotoscoping is right up my alley -- I still count Richard Linklater's Waking Life among my top 100 films of all time -- so I got Tower on my MIFF schedule when it became clear that I'd have one more ticket to use on the last day of the festival.

A few days after that, once I'd already grown accustomed to the idea that I'd be giving MIFF a proper sendoff on its final day, I learned that we did not in fact have one more ticket, though I remain convinced we must have lost it somewhere. (Most of my tickets were free anyway, so I couldn't complain about one lost one.) So I reluctantly released my grasp on Tower, feeling like I'd really missed an opportunity. (It was pure greed, though -- the 11 movies I saw at MIFF were already my personal record by a margin of a half-dozen films.)

My next opportunity to see Tower came when it appeared among the candidates for this year's HRAFF (Human Rights & Arts Film Festival), which I'm helping curate. It wasn't assigned to me personally to vet, but the screener passwords are shared to all of us in the weekly emails, and all I had to do was follow the link and pop the password in there.

What caused me to pause was when I saw that this version of Tower just 82 minutes. I wouldn't have known there was anything wrong with that had it not been for Adam Kempenaar, the co-host of Filmspotting, who observed that the film (which he would later name his favorite the year) lasted exactly 96 minutes, which was also the length of Whitman's spree. HRAFF sometimes sees festival or other earlier versions of films, so I assumed we had access only to a truncated version of the one Kempenaar praised so highly. I'm uncomfortable enough as it is by movies that exist in several distinct versions, and I figured, one that Adam loved so much should be seen in its pure and unadulterated form.

But time was passing and it was becoming almost a certainty that I'd miss Tower before my ranking deadline. Then, just yesterday in a Facebook chat, a friend advised me that it was finally now available on iTunes. I'd checked only recently and found no sign of it, but here it was, now available. I moved a few things around and planned a viewing for Friday night.

Of course, in my haste to begin downloading it I neglected the one most important piece of information: its running time. Three dollars and ninety-nine cents are not a king's ransom, but after we spent so much money in the U.S., I'm trying to limit my luxuries. A quick and cursory check at the running time was not only possible, it was something I should have done.

Well, I didn't. And I found out that the version that had just cost me four bucks was also 82 minutes, meaning I had access to this very version for free.

So where did this 96-minute version come from, the one Adam talked about and the one advertised on IMDB?

I'm guessing not many people, including Adam, have seen it. In his attempt to make a clever extra-textual observation, Adam probably noted the running time listed on IMDB, couldn't specifically remember it being shorter than that, and took the opportunity to attribute it to the director as an intentional choice, in some way mirroring the experience witnesses had that August day in Austin. A check of the movie's Wikipedia page lists a longer 92-minute version that originally showed at festivals -- possibly including MIFF -- but this was cut back by ten minutes and never made it out to the likes of us common folk, which in this case also includes Adam.

Well I'm glad I got it on my viewing schedule because Tower did not disappoint. It uses the medium terrifically and generates good tension from that extended period of chaos and uncertainty on that university campus. The only thing actually "faulty" about it for me is that instability regarding its running time, which may just be one dude -- albeit an influential dude on a popular movie podcast -- making a simple mistake.

As I am posting this, Donald Trump is becoming the next president of the United States.

Where are those snipers in towers when you need them?

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