Monday, March 16, 2020


When I was a boy, my father became friends with a pilot with owned a Cessna he kept in a small airfield tucked away a few miles from our house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. One day, a year or two after 9/11, he took us on a flight spanning the roughly eighty miles from our Bucks county suburb to the island of Manhattan. Along the way we could look down and see the totality of America: fractal-like suburbs pockmarked with swimming pools; empty farm fields of different colors covering the countryside like a quilt; blasted industrial wastelands of rubble and coal. Finally New York City loomed in front of us like a beacon of civilization. And it was right then that my dad’s friend told us he’d have to turn around, since the US Armed Forces had been on constant alert since the attacks and had standing orders to shoot down any aircraft that came too close to the city’s airspace. As John Mellencamp might say: “But ain’t that America?” You fly close enough to the dream and the dream threatens to shoot you down.

But this brand of Icarus-esque nihilism has always percolated beneath our collective national subconscious. And as director Scout Tafoya argues in his stunning new film Beata Virgo Viscera, nowhere does that resigned desperation shine through more than in our films about aviators, airports, and aircrafts. Boldly compressing nearly 80 years of American cinema, the film transports viewers into a liminal fugue-state as it weaves footage from everything from high art films to cheap porno schlock with everything in between. This might be the first time Douglas Sirk and Coleman Francis have ever been compared unironically. Yet marvel how he points out how both films use rural airports in The Tarnished Angels (1957) and The Skydivers (1963) as stages for doomed romances between burnt-out adrenaline junkies cast aside by a country in the midst of a post-war nervous breakdown.

For Tafoya, midcentury thrill-seeking stunt pilots were national tulpas conjured by an existential Jungian need for the freedom Pax Americana denied so many, and their self-destruction self-ordained acts of self-worship. Culminating in a dazzling half-hour montage of ordinary Americans living their insignificant lives set to John Adams’ Grand Pianolo Music, Tafoya fossilizes the American zeitgeist of hope and failure into a cinematic daguerreotype worthy of Bill Morrison.

(This piece originally was published on Nate Hood's website. Published with his permission.)

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