9/11

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part Two)

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Truth to Power

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)
Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

img_0973Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate

“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”

img_0977Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate

img_0979Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0981Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park

img_0984“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.

img_0985The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

img_0989Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem

[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

img_0991Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0993Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0995Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0998Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

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Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.

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A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_1014Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_0957Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

Say It Loud!

And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:

Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”

John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”

img_1016Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”

Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”

img_1017Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”

Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”

img_1023Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”

Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”

Michael Richards, Artist Statement:

“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?

“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.

“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.

“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.

“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.

“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”

img_1021The End Game

We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.

Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.

What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?

These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.

Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.

I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s statement — it is Michael himself.

With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part One)

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img_0951The City Never Sleeps

Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.

To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.

“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.

I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.

Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.

img_0958I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”

I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.

Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.

Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.

The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/lost-navigator-michael-richards-a-story-of-redemption-through-art/).

Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.

In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.

The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”

While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.

Obscure Objects of Desire

Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, Sptember 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, September 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.

More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.

The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.

Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?

True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.

But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.

Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.

How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.

A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].

History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990) (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counvil)
History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990), left (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.

“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.

The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”

The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’

“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”

Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.

In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.

“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”

The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.

Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery, 1992
Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lost Navigator: Michael Richards — A Story of Redemption through Art

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Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)
Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)

The clock-radio went off at 7:45 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, a radiantly sunlit Tuesday in New York. Instead of being greeted by the usual reggae beat, a distant, far-away psalm in Latin verse came over the airwaves — softly at first, then stronger and more assured. Women’s voices predominated, followed by the men; an eerie sort of sound not much different from Gregorian chant that reverberated in a church-like atmosphere. It forced Michael Richards to pry open his eyes.

“Oh, Geez,” he muttered sleepily to himself, “what the heck is this?” Michael rolled over in his cot, a simple makeshift bed he’d been using with increasing frequency, while he stayed up till the “wee, small hours,” a close friend would say, working diligently on his art projects.

Despite being startled by the sound, the music was vaguely familiar, except that Michael had a hard time placing it. He decided to leave the radio on for the moment. It took some time for him to shake off the effects of the previous night’s indulgence. He had gone to bed late, long past midnight; it must have been two or three in the morning. No matter, Michael had to be up by 8:00 and on his way to the Bronx by 8:45. The subway ride from lower Manhattan took about an hour and twenty minutes on a good day, but it was less of a hassle than if he had made the trip from his home in Rosedale. Besides, he didn’t want to be late for work.

Work? Man, he thought, it wasn’t work at all. Not to him anyway. He loved his job at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Michael was an assistant art laborer, sort of a go-to guy and artistic jack-of-all-trades. “Yeah, and master of none,” another wise-ass buddy once remarked.

bronx museum of the arts

“Hah, you’re probably right,” Michael would snap back, in that deliberately calm, non-confrontational style of his. He didn’t want to offend his pal, whom he had known since their Miami South Beach fellowship days. What’s the sense of it? He’d only seen him, what, three, maybe four times a day. Each and every day! “Why make enemies when you can keep the mutual admiration society going?” he reasoned. Good point.

“Damn! Why can’t I remember this tune?” There was something ethereal and slightly other-worldly about it. “Is this what they call an out-of-body experience?” he wondered aloud. Moving in for a closer look, Michael noticed the radio wasn’t tuned to his favorite station.

“Yo, who’s been messing with my dial?” The call numbers read 96.3. This was WQXR-FM, a classical-music station. “Ah, right,” he remembered, with a look of bemusement. “Maybe Jeffy had something to do with that.” Michael was referring to a fellow artist named Jeff, his studio neighbor and a die-hard football fanatic. The two of them had stayed up past their normal hour to watch Monday Night Football, which featured the season opener between the Giants and the Broncos at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The Giants lost 31-20, a real heartbreaker.

Among other styles of music, Michael knew that Jeff liked classical. Michael, too, had wide-ranging tastes, but classical? A little gospel and blues perhaps, and, of course, lots and lots of reggae, a love of which he acquired while growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Although Michael was born in Brooklyn — on August 2, 1963 — his father was a Jamaican by birth, one who had strong views about where his son should be brought up. His mother, a native of Costa Rica, had other ideas. Michael’s decision to become an artist and dedicate his life to art had initially been met with resistance by family members. Still, that did not stop him from pursuing his goal.

“Can’t dwell on that now,” he commented. “I got to get going!” With that, he turned off the radio, got up from the cot and went to the bathroom.

As he turned on the shower, Michael’s thoughts turned back to sports. It had rained the night before. “Man, it poured,” he added for emphasis. A passing thunderstorm that started before 7 p.m. blanketed the skyline with threatening clouds. Heavy showers dumped nearly half an inch of rain onto Yankee Stadium, leaving a water-logged playing field in its wake. As a result, the game between the Bronx Bombers and the Oakland A’s, originally scheduled for later in the evening, had been scrapped. Michael was fond of baseball, but with the Yankee game cancelled football seemed the better option. Jeff thought so, too.

In as much as they both loved watching sports on television, Michael’s real passion was for sculpture. He’d often work through the night on a piece, sometimes into the next morning — shaping it, defining it, tweaking it with his tools and hands, until in his gut he felt it was just right. “That Goldilocks thingee in the belly.”

Monday, September 10, had been an especially long day for him. He had come to the studio, located on the 92nd floor of Tower One (also known as the North Tower) of the World Trade Center, after having first attended a late afternoon opening at the Grey Art Gallery where he used to work, near New York University in Washington Square Park.

Returning from the gallery, Michael kept to his habit of working out in the gym, sculpting his solid six-foot-something frame into fighting shape. Grunting and groaning, lifting multi-pound weights, working those thigh muscles, flexing his arms, calves and legs, and using the treadmill. He did this for the simplest of reasons: he needed his body in tip-top condition for his projects.

Why else would he, or anyone else for that matter, have subjected themselves to such torture? By covering himself with plaster resin and casting his own muscular build, Michael could put his time and effort to good use, as well as imprint his likeness on every piece he turned out — not unlike the carvings and statues of ancient kings and pharaohs.

Only, instead of relying on slaves to build 40-story-high tombs, Michael could depend on his colleagues and fellow artisans for help with the painstaking process. He worked patiently and methodically. Once the molding and casting were done Michael could manipulate the plaster resin to his desired purpose. In the age of advanced technology, his output was decidedly low-tech: therein lay its appeal.

Michael Richards & Friends
Michael Richards & Friends

On occasion, he would demonstrate the labor-intensive process in person to his girlfriend, now his fiancée, Christie. She would stand there and gaze at him, admiringly, seeing how much he enjoyed the results of his labor. Keeping her in his mind as well as in his heart, Michael called Christie on his cell phone just after the football game had ended, to let her know he was still at work.

“Michael, it’s midnight,” she reminded him. “When can I see you?”

“Tomorrow, sweetie. I should be free by tomorrow, okay?”

Jeff, Vanessa, Monika, and the other 22 artists in the World Views program run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council — the entity that provided windowed studio space in Tower One — were also privy to Michael’s working habits and methods, in particular his obsession with flight imagery.

It was an obsession that started about a decade ago. As a young black man, albeit one of distinctly Caribbean ancestry, living and working in the America of the new millennium, Michael took “the idea of flight” not only as it relates to his subsequent “use of pilots and planes, but” its references to “the black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place — to a better world,” as he explained it.

One of his earliest representations, from 1997, depicts a World War II Tuskegee airman in flight suit, helmet and parachute. The eyes are closed, the body rigid and erect, with the hands flat against his side. Nails perforate the figure from the neck down to the lower abdomen and upper thighs. With the left leg bent slightly inward, it’s an obvious pharaonic pose preserved in fiberglass and resin with elements of iron oxide. A study for future events to come, but Michael didn’t know that at the time.

Michael’s continued use of “pilots and planes,” i.e., the famed all-black and segregated Tuskegee air squadron, came to full fruition in his 2000 creation for the Franconia Sculpture Park, near the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota. He titled it Are You Down? Originally made of glass fiber and resin, but recast in bronze in 2012 as part of a preservation project, this piece is a tableau of three downed air pilots positioned triangularly across from and with their backs to one another. Again, Michael was the model for each of the airmen.

Are You Down? (Photo: Jason DeMoe)
Are You Down? at Franconia Sculpture Park (Photo: Jason DeMoe)

In the middle of the structure is a large bulls-eye target which the figures have missed. The faces on the three airmen are downcast and looking at the ground. According to writer, artist, designer and long-time Twin Cities resident Glenn Gordon, “They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.”

A variation on this theme found its culmination in one of Michael’s last surviving works. Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian is a bronze sculpture made in 1999 of a lone Tuskegee airman. True to form, the sculpture was cast from life, that is, from his own form. In this instance, the airman is portrayed as the early Christian martyr St. Sebastian. But instead of the figure being pierced by multiple arrows, the artist, who is dressed once more in flight gear and accompanying helmet, is impaled by a swarm of model airplanes.

Like his prior 1997 piece, Michael’s eyes are shut tight. But unlike that statue’s severe countenance, or the downed air pilots in Franconia, the face is tranquil and relaxed, the chin raised imperceptibly to the sky, the hands placed with their palms up in the manner of a supplicant. His feet (covered by army boots), and indeed his entire body, are lifted off the ground by several inches. The structure is supported by a steel shaft, with the planes attached by steel bolts. The impression one receives is that of the pilot (or, if you will, Michael himself) ascending into heaven.

Michael recalled the artist’s statement he had composed back when Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian was completed — the statement he never had the chance to submit before his statue was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem: “The Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home.”

Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)
Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)

Stepping out of the shower, Michael dried himself off and got dressed in a spiffy black outfit. “Say it loud,” he’d shout back at his reflection in the mirror, “I’m all in black and I’m oh-so proud.” He mused on his accomplishments to date, and was indeed proud of the fact that he was an artist-in-residence at several New York studios and museums; that he had had several gallery showings under his belt, among them the Chicago Cultural Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the aforementioned Studio Museum of Harlem, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Even more than these, he was glad to have been able to address such personal issues as social injustice, discrimination, the lack of opportunity, racial intolerance and unfairness through his art. “I’m a credit to my race — the human race!” he pointed out half jokingly, in a paraphrase of sports journalist Jimmy Cannon’s famous observation about the boxer Joe Louis.

Looking at his watch, he still had a few minutes to think about his mounting workload. One he had been spending a good deal of time on had to do with a man riding a meteor. Another was a life-sized recreation of his own torso with wings on its back. One of the wings was supposed to be broken off. He called this piece Fallen Angel. Michael gave out a little chuckle at that title. “Lucifer, you little devil, you’re the fallen angel!”

Time was getting short. Michael had to step on it if he was going to catch the subway train to the Bronx. Out of the blue, he found that he remembered the title of the choral music that had awakened him that morning. It was Adagio for Strings, sung by mixed choir in an arrangement by its composer, Samuel Barber. The words, based on the Latin text for “Lamb of God,” were part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church:

Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Miserere nobis

 

Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Dona nobis pacem

 

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Have mercy on us

 

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Grant us peace

 

This was something his Catholic friends would repeat when, on the rare occasion that Michael was invited to attend Mass, he would hear the priest speak these words from the altar: “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the lamb.” And the congregation would respond in turn: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Even though he did not take communion, Michael invariably felt better afterwards. He especially looked forward to the sign of peace where the parishioners would shake hands with one another.

“Peace be with you,” they would whisper to him. “And also with you,” he’d answer back.

It was 8:45 a.m., almost time to go. Michael had just enough time to turn on the TV and hear the latest weather forecast, along with a summary of the previous day’s events. Satisfied with the news, he turned off the set. Just then, he heard the ear-shattering noise of a jet engine, an unmistakable sound for someone, like himself, so attuned to aeronautics. In the next instant, an airplane crashed into Tower One between the 93rd and 99th floors. The time was 8:46 and thirty seconds.

Repeated calls to Michael’s cell phone went unanswered. In fact, no one’s cell phone was working properly that day, or the day after.

*              *              *

Michael Richards perished on the morning of September 11, 2001. He was 38 years and one month old. He was working in his studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center Tower One, on the side facing the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, Michael was entombed with his work in a 110-story structure, a tower taller than any pyramid or obelisk from the ancient or modern world.

At exactly that same moment, fellow World Views artist Vanessa Lawrence had stepped off the 91st floor elevator when she felt the whole building shake. She headed for the stairs, making her way through smoke, debris and water. Eventually leaving the building, she saw that Tower Two had collapsed next door.

The above story is a fictionalized account of the events on and before the day of Michael’s passing. Though much of the dialogue has been recreated and dramatized, the events as they occurred are based on the written record and on eyewitness accounts of those who knew the artist personally.

Linda Johnson Dougherty, chief curator and curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was co-curator of the Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight Exhibit held in Raleigh from November 2, 2003 to March 7, 2004, as part of the Centennial of Flight Show honoring the Wright Brothers. It was during this exhibition that I first laid eyes on Michael Richard’s achievement, the mesmerizing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Needless to say, I was both stunned and immensely impressed by the figure.

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length photo (NC Museum of Art)
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length shot (NC Museum of Art)

But how did this particular piece become a part of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection? Linda explained that the sculpture was a long sought-after item, but that it had not been among the artist’s work at the time of his death. Later, the museum learned that it was found stored inside a family member’s garage (that of a cousin who lived outside the city, in Mount Vernon). The family had given it to the museum as part of a long-term loan. It’s an incredibly moving and poignant piece, hugely significant and impressively displayed. The work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, to those who died on 9/11.

Out of intuition and my own curiosity about the artist’s thought processes and mind-set, I asked Linda if she felt Michael may have had a premonition of his own death. “No, of course not,” Linda insisted. “How could anyone know that? It would be impossible.” Indeed, one of the many ironic coincidences of Michael Richards’ life was how his art transcended his manner of death.

In a reference to this piece, Michael’s art dealer, Genaro Ambrosino, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying, “Although it was about death, it was more about liberation, freedom, being able to escape. It was a sad message because of what it meant historically … It was like redemption from all that.”  

This lost navigator sought and found his home, a spiritual port of call. For it is only through Him, the above-named Lamb of God, that we can be redeemed.

When asked by a friend what he wanted out of life, Michael made this telling connection: “I want to live hard. I want to love hard. I want to work hard, and then I want to die.”

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Munich’ (2005) — The Modern Jewish Conscience and 9/11

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Mathieu Kassovitz & Eric Bana in Munich (movierumors.wordpress.com)

Four men are seen at a Paris railway station, heading towards a waiting train. They are special agents, recruited by the Israeli government, and intent on going to Amsterdam to “take care” of a serious problem involving a killing of their own. Abruptly, one of the agents, Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the group’s designated bomb expert, has second thoughts about the assignment and decides to pull back from the trip. The team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), walks over to him to find out what’s wrong.

“So you’re really going to kill her?” asks Robert, referring to their latest target, a beautiful Dutch assassin who has just murdered their clean-up man, the straight-laced Carl (Ciaran Hinds). Avner nods in ascent. “All this blood comes back to us,” Robert confides.

“Eventually it will work,” replies Avner in the calm, reassuring manner reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler. “Even if it takes years, we’ll beat them.”

“We’re Jews, Avner. Jews don’t do wrong because our enemies do wrong.”

“We can’t afford to be that decent anymore,” he counters.

“I don’t know that we ever were that decent. Suffering thousands of years of hatred doesn’t make you decent. But we’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish. That’s what I knew, that’s what I was taught. And now I’m losing it, and I lose that, that’s… that’s everything. That’s my soul.”

He loses that, and much more, in Steven Spielberg’s thought-provoking suspense thriller Munich (2005), about the aftermath of the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by the militant Black September outfit during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Germany. It’s just one of many scenes in a film that portrays the modern Jewish conscience in an entirely new light, along with displaying a new level of maturity and freedom by one of Hollywood’s most secure filmmakers.

Gone are the warm-and-fuzzy feelings generated by Spielberg’s family friendly alien E.T., as are the deliriously madcap adventures of freewheeling archeologist Indiana Jones. In their place are a sobriety and seriousness of purpose that raise Spielberg’s latest celluloid masterwork to a level far and above the general run-of-the-mill movie fare we’ve come to expect from Tinsel Town.

That he’s able to tackle such a controversial subject as revenge killings in the politically charged climate of the then-current Iraq War is a testament to his ability (and will) in the complacent world of Hollywood cinema. With its provocative theme, the movie also raised more than a few eyebrows abroad, to include past witnesses to the terrible event as well as the widows of several of the deceased team members. Still, it’s a nonetheless disturbing look at what transpires when overzealous governments forgo logic and reason — no matter how noble the cause — to take up the iron rod of justice; the result being that suspicion is heaped on top of suspicion, paranoia piled on top of paranoia, until all we are left with is the uneasy sense that blind revenge is not the answer.

Scenes reenacting, and leading up to, the murders themselves are interspersed with those of the special-agent hit squad, hell-bent on exacting an eye-for-an-eye exchange with the Palestinians — or at least, that’s what their government hints at. As if imprisoned by some never-ending nightmare, lead agent Avner relives these same events over and over again, as he tries in vain to rest up after wrestling with his own personal conscience. In the penultimate scene, the selfless act of love (the giving of life) is juxtaposed with senseless acts of unspeakable violence (the taking away of life).

With that in mind, Avner is shown twice performing in bed: once near the beginning of the film, with his pregnant wife Daphna (Avelet Zurer), just after he accepts his initial assignment; and once more, near the end, before his final confrontation with Israeli government contact Ephraim (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), as he’s about to renounce it. By doing this, the message is made abundantly clear: there is a fine line — a very fine line, it turns out — between love and hate, good and evil, justice and injustice; it all depends on how one chooses to cross it — if one dares to do so.

Eric Bana & Geoffrey Rush (ivid.com)
Eric Bana & Geoffrey Rush (ivid.com)

The last shot in the film (and a most controversial one it is, too) is of the newly constructed World Trade Center, taken from the Brooklyn side of town — an ominous portent of things to come for us Americans in our own “Black September” incident that took place, ironically enough, in the same month (9/11) as the Munich massacres, albeit with almost 30 years of hindsight between them.

We’ve heard Robert’s bold assertion, in the opening section, that he and Avner, if not the whole of Israel, may have strayed too far from their roots in their “righteous” pursuit of their cause, to ever cross back over the line of decency. Ambiguity, then, shares a front seat with uncertainty; their task is no longer fueled by irrefutable moral rectitude as doubts begin to creep in almost from the start — even as the agents are being provided the names, dates and places of their next victims, but without ever confirming their accuracy or their connection to the original event.

This becomes the movie’s self-fulfilling prophecy: do we not turn into the very thing we ourselves despise if we partake of the same heinous crimes as those of our foes? Only a director of Spielberg’s clout, stature and vision — added to this, his new-found flexing of directorial muscle — could have posed such an intriguing question at this point in our time.

Another, even finer example of Spielberg’s newly-acquired freedom behind the lens occurs in the next scene, a superbly choreographed sequence wherein the three remaining agents, after having learned the whereabouts of the treacherous femme fatale, travel by bicycle to her Amsterdam boathouse to permanently dispose of her. Dressed in a silk bathrobe, the Dutch assassin (Canadian actress Marie-Josée Croze) is poised casually on the bed, reading to herself, completely unaware of their presence. Suddenly, the blond Adonis, Steve (Daniel Craig), bursts in, yet she is only mildly taken aback by his audacity.

“Excuse me. Who are you?” she smiles. In the next instant, she spies Avner entering from the side. Her face momentarily contorts to reveal both recognition and horror of the man she originally tried to entice to bed.

“Do you know why we’re here?” Avner quizzes her, spouting the same line he used at his own nearly bungled first assassination attempt early on, in Rome, of one of the alleged masterminds behind the Arab raid on the Olympic Village.

“I want to get dressed, okay?” she asks demurely, but her request has no effect. Avner and Steve coldly go about their business, preparing their weapons for discharge, while the girl opens the dresser drawer behind her, desperately groping for her own firearm. Unable to reach it in time, she decides on another tactic.

“Maybe you want to hire me. You know how good I am.” When this too fails, she is forced into utilizing the only weapon she has left at her disposal: herself.

“No, don’t,” she shudders, lowering her robe to reveal an ample breast. “It’s such a fucking waste of talent.” It is here that the screenwriters, Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Eric Roth (The Insider, Forrest Gump), hit pay dirt: offhandedly suggesting the “F” word to mean more than just a strategically placed expletive, it’s the assassin’s last-ditch effort to her foes to forget all about eliminating her. Too late, for Steve and Avner fire their guns, hitting the assassin point-blank in the chest and throat. Emerging dazed from her bedroom, the girl makes for the kitchen area and unsuccessfully tries to pick up her cat, an involuntary act of seeking comfort from a favorite pet amid so much tension and chaos.

“Shell, shell,” orders Avner. The girl plants herself on a chaise lounge, while the two men resume the methodical process of reloading. Gasping for breath, the dark blood oozing from her wounded windpipe, the girl visibly struggles. Finally, the third agent, Hans (Hanns Zischler), comes in to deliver the deathblow to her forehead. Perhaps out of respect for the deceased, or some misplaced sense of modesty for a fellow covert operative, Avner attempts to cover up her bloodstained private parts.

“Leave it,” Hans tells him. He then proceeds to unveil her limp body for all the world to see, a twentieth-century Whore of Babylon, as it were. Later, Hans acknowledges his lack of compassion for the girl by admitting to both Avner and Steve that he can’t help thinking about the unclothed creature he left behind.

“But you weren’t yourself,” offers Steve by way of explanation. Hans is not convinced. When we next see him, however, he too is found dead, stabbed in the heart by another assassin. The hunter-agents have now become the hunted.

While incidental to the main plot, this innocuous little episode is crucial to a better understanding of the conflict Spielberg has set up within the minds of his main characters. The Dutch assassin interlude, although brief and unfettered, takes place at just beyond the halfway mark — indeed, past the agents’ point of no return. The assassin herself, a tall and gorgeous brunette, stands in sharp contrast to the squat and motherly Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), who appears briefly in the movie’s opening scenes. Golda represents our Old Testament notion of Israel (or, for the purposes of Spielberg’s film project, the Israel of 1972) — strong, resolute, determined — in the face of such horrible adversity, while the Dutch assassin is our modern-day equivalent.

Marie-Josee Croze & Eric Bana
Marie-Josee Croze & Eric Bana at the hotel bar

When we first encounter the Dutch assassin, she is at a hotel bar, eying the darkly handsome Avner’s features. She’s dressed in a red dress, the stereotypical color of a street-walker. He obediently sits next to her, clearly interested in what she has to sell. She, for her part, doesn’t waste his time with pleasantries, but rather lets it slip that she’s about to go up to her hotel room, alone. She then rubs some of her intoxicating perfume onto his bare forearm. Who could resist such a ploy?

But Avner does resist, and furtively leaves the bar. In the lobby, he runs into Carl, the clean-up agent — the one he will eventually seek retribution for — who does not heed his advice to watch out for the “local honey trap.” Avner retires to his room, but cannot get to sleep, especially after hearing his baby daughter’s voice on the telephone. He again goes down to the bar. Finding it empty, he decides to go back and turn in. Just as he’s about to put his key in the door, he notices the assassin’s alluring perfume in the air and follows the scent to Carl’s room across the hall.

“You asshole. I saw her first,” he mutters to himself. But then, his special agent’s sense gets the better of him. As he slowly opens the door, he spots Carl’s naked body sprawled out on the bed. Lifting Carl’s head, he finds a bloody mess on the pillow. We now understand why special agent Hans left the Dutch assassin dressed in nothing but her birthday suit. Having escaped seduction and his own probable demise, Avner comes to the realization that others have been alerted to their game and are, at that moment, tracking them down.

When later he hears the news that the bomb expert Robert has also perished in a freak “accident,” he informs Ephraim that he cannot go on with the mission.

We, too, come to realize that Prime Minister Golda had earlier seduced the fresh-faced Avner (in quite a different manner, of course) into taking on this dangerous assignment, with overly excessive praise not only for his having been her bodyguard in a previous career with Mossad, but for how truly great a war hero, and loyal friend to Israel, his father had been; and so forth.

It’s plain to see that if one gets into “bed” with the nation, whether in the guise of an experienced elder stateswoman or a beautiful young assassin, one could still wind up a corpse, no matter what the outcome of Israel’s struggles with her enemies might be — a struggle the embittered state is still confronting a generation or more later.

In the same spirit as his Oscar-winning Schindler’s List (1991), and in the post-9/11 productions of Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005), Spielberg deserves full credit for having convinced mainstream Hollywood of the necessity in making such a powerful film statement as Munich, considering the cerebral way he has gone about presenting his case to an America seemingly oblivious to world opinion, in regard to her own righteous pursuit of terrorists in war-torn Iraq; the abuse of prisoners at Abu Gharaib; the secret CIA prison camps in Eastern Europe; the unresolved issue of detainees in Guantánamo Bay; or the lost opportunities in tracking down those actually responsible for the attacks on 9/11.

We are left wondering at the end if the U.S. has not already fallen victim to the same kind of consequences that befell the modern state of Israel in the wake of the tragedy of Munich. Perhaps she’s even lost her soul. But, as Steven Spielberg has so wisely suggested, if she loses that, that’s everything… Isn’t it? ¤

Munich (2005)

Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel, and Colin Wilson; screenplay by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth; based on the book Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by George Jonas; cinematography by Janusz Kaminski; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; starring Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Kinds, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Marie-Josee Croze, Geoffrey Rush, Ayelet Zurer, Michael Lonsdale, and Lynn Cohen. Color, 163 min. Amblin Entertainment, distributed by Universal Studios.

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes