I spend a lot of time scrolling through the offerings on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. looking for just the right thing to watch. I’m often in the mood for true crime documentary, and I feel sometimes like I’ve watched all the goods ones as I bypass countless reality TV re-enactment-type offerings that I just know aren’t going to give me what I want.
Last night I was lucky enough to choose right.
I’d read a review of Tower in the Boston Globe months ago, and it intrigued me. The documentary is about a topic I’ve always had a fascination with — the University of Texas Aug. 1, 1966, mass shooting. But this documentary was different, and I wondered if I’d like it. I’m not a fan of re-enactments. And I really have to be sold on animation, and this uses archival footage combined with what’s known as rotoscoping (thanks to Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, or I’d never know what to call that.) It’s when live actors are used, then are animated over (not the technical description, I know!). You’ve seen it on commercials and some other places.
But the subject matter, combined with my memory of Burr’s review, made me click on it.
I was not disappointed. The documentary uses eyewitness accounts to tell the story, and the combination of the rotoscoping with the real footage is riveting.
I realized watching it that I was way past tired of documentaries with talking heads telling a story they weren’t there for (those ones with celebrities telling you what you just saw on film? Quickest way to get me to turn one off). Ken Burns has given a lot to storytelling, but I can only take so many jangling banjos, sepia-toned photos (which I’m frequently not sure are of the actual subject matter, or are just used to capture the spirit and no one bothers to say we’re not looking at the same thing that’s being talked about). And did I mention talking heads?
“Tower” beat any true-crime documentary I’ve seen recently, hands-down, for dramatic tension. I even forgot in some ways I was watching animation, while at the same time I marveled at just how cool the animation combined with the real footage is. The fact that I knew the details and how it ended didn’t take away from the drama at all, which is saying a lot.
I won’t spoil it, but I’ll let Burr tell you, from his review, one of the best features of this new and exciting type of storytelling:
“There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through ‘Tower’ that took my breath away — and I was already holding my breath. I won’t tell you what it is, because when you see Keith Maitland’s bravura documentary, you’ll know. All I’ll say is that things suddenly get real.”
He wasn’t kidding. I had the exact same reaction. And, as Burr said, you’ll know it when it hits you.
We live in an age when there are so many new and exciting ways to tell stories. This goes for a lot of things — I’ve become an obsessive podcast listener, particularly of “Casefile,” in which a mostly impassive Australian narrator (we never learn his name) does some really in-depth reporting on some of the more horrific crimes of our lifetime. Hell, before “Serial,” I didn’t even know what a podcast was. After “Serial,” I still avoided them. (I like listening to MUSIC DAMMIT!) But now I’m hooked enough to even have my own.
I sometimes hear authors (none of the ones who blog here, readers!) gripe about all the technology, the social media, the things that distract potential readers and may “take away” from the desire of people to read books. It was the same tune in the newspaper biz when things started going downhill about 10 years ago and many lamented the digital age would make newspapers vanish forever.
I felt about newspapers then, and “book writing” now, that there will always be a need for storytelling and people who can tell stories. How lucky we are to be here, now, when the possibilities are endless. Newspapers can put that court document, or video, online and enhance the story. Authors can share so much of their experience and inspiration through everything from Twitter and Instagram to their Facebook pages and websites, to things like this blog. And even podcasts, if they want to.
I had an opportunity recently to be part of a great online writing series, Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops, which offers video courses on 12 different writing topics, taught by authors. Because, apparently, I did a nice job with some heavy flashback features in my most recent Bernie O’Dea mystery, “No News is Bad News,” I was asked to narrate the backstory and flashback segment. The whole thing is pretty cool and way beyond resources available to writers when I was trying to figure out how to make this work.
When I see a documentary — or hear a podcast, or read a book — that’s really cool, it gives me total joy. I love things that get into my head, make me think, and engage me in a way that’s hard to do with all the noise out there.
“Tower” made me think, not for the first time, how lucky we are to be in an age where there are so many new ways to tell stories, and creative people aren’t afraid to go out on a limb to do it.
There’s nothing like a good story and good storytelling, so get out there and enjoy it.
CHECK OUT MY special brand of storytelling at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, (tomorrow if you’re reading this the day it posts)
when I bring my traveling slide show (yes I do!) to Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, Maine, the library responsible for making me the the mystery writer that I am. Books will be available to buy and I’ll sign whatever you have, but mostly I’d just like to see you there!
Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at@mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.