Is the United States of America falling apart? It might appear so when following the news. At the very least, the current mood of a large part of its people appears to be despair. Scout Tafoya reflects that national mood of despair and depression in his new feature-length essay film Beata Virgo Viscera through a collage of American cinema from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Without ever explicitly connecting that time of change in American culture, from hope and optimism to bitter disappointment and regret, to present times, the mirror is clear and forlorn. “A certain American defeatism” indeed.
Beata Virgo Viscera devotes a large chunk to films about aviators, parachutists, and other Americans who take to the sky. A sparingly used voice-over commentary forges the images from these films into a vision of an America of the past, an America that no longer exists. The question is, did it ever, really? The optimism and openness of the land and cityscapes in the first part of the film gradually make way for the Americans in the late 1950s and 1960s who only look to the sky and the ability to fly in planes as a way of achieving their dreams – no longer is the American land able to provide them with this.
And yet, as Scout says, “no one is ever happy at the airport,” perhaps the truest statement in any film in 2018. You might be able to fly for a while and escape reality, but you’ll always have to come back down again and wait for the next flight. This is expressed most effectively in Scout‘s analysis of John Frankenheimer’s 1969 movie The Gypsy Moths (a revelation for me which I’ll have to track down sooner than later), an Unloved film that seems to capture the disillusionment and loss of innocence of the American soul as well as any film from that era.
The title Beata Virgo Viscera also specifically reflects this mood. It’s a quote from a Gregorian chant “O Magnum Mysterium”, which can be translated as the ‘womb of the Blessed Virgin’, though ‘viscera’ also means intestines. If the illusion of the American Dream is the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, bearing fruit to our salvation, then its disillusionment feels more like her intestines, preparing for a bowel movement.
However, there’s still hope. In the last part of the film, Scout says that if we could really take flight, we might be born again to a new world of hope and possibility. Yet, in the final, beautiful, lyrical montage sequence that follows (which brought tears to my eyes), set to John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, people are grounded again, and on that very American soil, they walk, run, ride, drive, fall in love and live life fully. Perhaps there is life after flight after all.
Beata Virgo Viscera is released online today and you can watch it in its full glory right here and now:
Full disclosure: Scout Tafoya is also a valued contributor to and friend of Frameland.