- Aviation Cinema
Undoubtedly for most in the Western world at this time [ca. 1909], the first sight they had of an aeroplane was not in the sky, but projected upon a screen.—Luke McKernan (2004)1
“Le cinéma, ce n’est pas je vois, c’est je vole.”—Paul Virilio (1984)2
The history of human air travel coincides with the history of cinema. A few weeks after The Great Train Robbery (dir. Edwin S. Porter) opened in December 1903, the Wright brothers successfully made the world’s first flight. Yet, while cinema had a few decades on aviation, no one filmed the Wright brothers’ breakthrough. Luke McKernan, historian of early film, thinks that the brothers’ “insistence upon secrecy as they tried to sell their invention to the American military” was a major reason for the failure to record an event of such historical consequence, but as a result the lack of a film recording made it even harder for the world to believe such a feat. While it was not until 1906 that human flight was filmed, by 1908 flying films “were legion”3 and aviation cinema really took off. Today, one-hundred-odd years after the Wright brothers radically reconfigured humans’ relation to their environment, air travel has become commonplace: 826 million passengers traveled on US airlines in 2013,4 about 2½ times the US population. Yet, even as it is more common, air travel remains a thrilling imaginative event; how else to explain the popularity of recent child-oriented aviation films like Planes (dir. Klay Hall, 2013) or the success of low-budget films like Snakes on a Plane (dir. David R. Ellis, 2006)?
In this essay, I analyze aviation cinema, offering a typology of a narrative film genre that becomes legible around a few interchangeable [End Page 309] structural elements: the pilot, the passenger, the aircraft, the terminal. Even with such a limited palette, because it is a genre in motion, aviation cinema is characterized by its fluidity, exchange, liminal crossings, and other reorganizations of an initial narrative state. The airplane is an ungrounded space of transformation; it is always a different plane that lands, a different passenger who disembarks. The variations in the simple calculus of pilot–passenger–aircraft–terminal result in the one hundred or so films that I locate in the genre of aviation cinema.
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Aerial photographs had previously been taken from hot-air balloons,5 but the first film taken from an airplane is something else entirely. This 1909 short film, Wilbur Wright and His Flying Machine, begins with scenes of the airplane being prepared while observers wait expectantly. Next it shifts to a series of low-angle panoramic shots that track the airplane in the sky and are cut with a few spectacular shots as the airplane buzzes directly towards—and then over—the low-placed camera. In the second part of the film, the camera is mounted on the left wing, and we see the plane travel shakily down a launch rail before rising serenely. Flying close to the ground, in a series of shots we see buildings, a man on a horse, farmland, and in the distance remains of Roman aqueducts (figure 1). Unlike the phantom rides of trains or the aerial photography from balloons, aviation cinema’s inaugural moment juxtaposes the smooth tracking aesthetics of flight against a rough, jerky takeoff; the tranquil glide through the air is made even more miraculous by the initial bumpiness of ground travel. As we will see later, the template this documentary footage sets—bumps and shakes and jolts, [End Page 310] and then serenity—is reversed the moment filmmakers use flight as part of a narrative about modernity, speed, technology, or war. Afterwards, aviation cinema prefers to offer us a smooth takeoff but rough flying.
Film scholar Tom Conley continues the line of inquiry opened up once film cameras were no longer earthbound. In a discussion of Icarian cinema, Conley identifies a cinema that...