North American

A multimedia flight of passage

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Trumpeter swans were soaring into blue sky above La Conner as I arrived for the opening of the new exhibit at the Museum of Northwest Art (MONA). Fittingly, the exhibit focuses on the flight-inspired film, North American.

In 2008, an enigmatic news event about a Canadian airline pilot caught the attention of Seattle filmmakers Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede. The pilot had to be removed from the cockpit and restrained when he was found to be arguing loudly with God.

The Zimbabwe-born Mudede heard in the pilot’s tale an echo of the story of Jonah, who was punished for refusing to listen to the voice of God. For Devor, the catalyst was the Iraq war—which President George Bush called a “crusade undertaken for God’s purposes.”

The pair have written and directed several films that have been praised for the sensitivity and candor with which they have explored offbeat, even forbidden, subjects. Their controversial documentary, Zoo, a Sundance winner, was selected for presentation at Cannes. Now they have partnered with the Museum of Northwest Art to create a multimedia experience in the four galleries of the ground floor—plus the restroom hallway.

As you enter, a cacophony of human and animal voices and mechanical sounds greets you. For the next hour, through the use of seven video screens, you will inhabit the imagined ordeal of the nameless pilot.

At video one, viewers meet the pilot being grilled by airline functionaries who urge him to plead a lapse of sanity and return to work. Next, in a hotel room, a ringing telephone distracts the apologetic steward detailed to mind him and our pilot escapes into a tiny park. In the hands of the filmmakers, this clump of trees transforms into a vast space, encompassing forests, playgrounds and lakes. 

The ringing telephone of the first video and the sounds of frogs, voices and jet engines in the remaining episodes assail observers with the past, present and future of the pilot’s two-day odyssey. He sleeps in the rain, watches an archeological dig, hitches a ride with a man who talks about the virtues of riding trains, sees a warning that a woman had been killed in the park. He hides from police and “gangstas” and witnesses a furtive burial.

What is his state of mind? He scratches in a notebook, “Prepare for war.”

In the climactic ending, a flotilla of yachts powers across Lake Washington; fighter jets roar overhead. Our pilot strides out through the park gates. He has made a journey,  and it is up to each of us to guess what he has decided. 

At the exhibit opening, some of the sound quality at the video stations was indistinct. Hopefully, this technical glitch will be remedied to improve the experience of the viewer.

Refresh your mind and rest your ears after the “North American” experience with a quiet gathering of paintings from the gallery’s permanent collection on the second floor.

MoNA Exhibitions Director Lisa Young has curated this thoughtful exhibit to celebrate the influence of shoreline on artists in the Northwest. Especially restful are Richard Gilkey’s “Three Crabs,” Paul Havas’ beautiful “Washington Coast,” and an astonishing watercolor by Charles Miller, entitled “The Edge of the Spit with Signal to Distant Island.”

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