Monday, December 26, 2016

From Salon: George Michael, man in a minor key (1996)

The phenomenally gifted, personally courageous singer, songwriter, producer and musician George Michael died on Christmas Day, at his home in Oxfordshire, England, at the age of 53. He only recorded six solo albums, the best of which was “Older,” which I reviewed for Salon in May 1996. Writers and music fans are putting his four-decade career into perspective; I just dug up this chestnut (only excerpted here) as my attempt to do the same, recalling the strongest, most laceratingly honest solo work of an artist gone way too damn soon:

GEORGE MICHAEL, the cool troubadour of pop and soul, has learned a thing or three about the fickle nature of love, corporate and otherwise.

“Older,” his first full-length recording since 1990, shows Michael very much at the top of his game: the voice that launched a thousand heartaches is still by turns plaintive and powerful. What’s changed is his outlook. The man who once told us “you gotta have faith, faith, faith” has had his own faith sorely tested.

Michael has always worn his heart on his cufflinked sleeve. Ever the unabashed romantic, Michael has parlayed affairs of the heart into music that, while frustrating critics less enamored of straightforward depictions of romance, still sold in the millions. ...

AS A SOLO performer, Michael reflected the depth of Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder as vocal influences, with he and such singers as Lisa Stansfield and Paul Young giving the term “black music” some very flexible interpretations. “Faith,” Michael’s breakthrough 1987 solo album, elevated him to heartthrob status. The songs “Faith” and “Father Figure” topped the charts, and such brazen entreaties as “I Want Your Sex” upset various pillars of morality — all of which should have pleased the powers at Columbia, Michael’s former record label.

Perhaps the trouble started with “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1″ (1990), the album that found Michael moving musically in a more reflective, arguably less commercial direction.

The fickle suitor, Sony Music (which had acquired the Columbia label), discovering that the new album was “Faith” no more, claimed that “Listen Without Prejudice” was inconsistent with Michael’s past work and, as such, unreleasable. In late 1992, Michael announced his plans to sue to end his $12 million contract with Sony. What followed, starting in October 1993, was a protracted legal melee during which Michael was barred from releasing new material. The embargo lasted 21 months, until Michael was released from his Sony contract in July 1995.

You'd think that, having achieved such a creative emancipation proclamation, any new release would be an upbeat, high-fiving affair. But it’s almost impossible to listen to any of the 11 “Older” songs — which he wrote and produced — without thinking of the complexities of his recent past. This year’s model of George Michael is chastened, hardened, sobered — a man in a minor key.

Read the full review from Salon, May 20, 1996

Image credit: Michael: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images. "Older" cover: © 1996 DreamWorks Records. Salon logo: © 2016 Salon Media Group.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The B.S. threshold:
Media resistance of the Trump Experience

IT’S BEEN A rough and challenging 18 months for the national press corps assigned to cover the Trump campaign (aka the boys and girls thrown under the bus).

From the implication of social media in the proliferation of fake news to the eight-minute hate that Donald Trump, the 45th president-apparent, indulged in berating the leadership of The New York Times at the Times’ own offices, the nation’s journalists — economically and professionally beleaguered to begin with — face a grim and uncertain time.

They’re working to restore their footing after the bruising campaign, and to get themselves out of campaign-embed mode. It’s hard not to drink the Kool-Aid when Kool-Aid is all that’s offered. But that was then. The campaign per se has been over for months, but the withdrawal period takes ... a while.

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Thinking now of the unfortunate phrase “Trump’s America,” which at this writing yields about 101 million Google search-engine results.

Since Nov. 9, the phrase has been adopted for the headlines and content in essays in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, ThinkProgress, Al Jazeera, The Economist and other news orgs that should know better. But Vanity Fair got the bug early, using the phrase this summer, way before the election, apparently identifying what it saw as a cohort of America large enough to be identifiable, and identifiable enough to be memorable.

Or go another way: Look for “age of Trump” or its variants (“Age of Trump,” “the Age of Trump”). That gets you about 132 million Google search results. Since the election, it’s turned up at Salon, The New Republic, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. And more besides.

Veterans of the newsroom know how this goes. You’re on deadline, rounding third base on a solid long-form piece on the election and its outcome, and you need that Perfect Headline, the one that embraces everything. And voila! You find something that works. And suddenly, thanks to the herd behavior common to online journalism, “the age of Trump’s America” is everywhere.

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BUT NO. Even making allowances for a 24/7 news cycle, or for hyperbole and exaggeration (those foundations of “editorial license”), it’s disturbing to see this viral canonization of someone who hasn’t yet taken the oath of office. The next administration hasn’t even finished ordering drapes for the East Room, and already the majors of mainstream media have lifted Trump to being a figure worthy of an “Age” of his very own.

As if his kingly aspect wasn’t hard enough to resist, the 325 million people in this country now come to find they’re living in “Trump’s America” — a rebranded nation in thrall to one man with a vanity distilled in a turn of phrase not far (and not far enough for comfort) from “Napoleonic France” or “Hitlerian Germany”).

At least those last two phrases are borne out through the long arc of historical time. But it’s as if by apparently winning the election, the mainstream media have accelerated The Donald’s political ascension. Trump's America? Really? With that, they’ve conceded to Trump the status of an acquisitive deity who just bought up the whole damn country, like a burger joint or a chain of motels.

Mainstream media has been so intensely, breathlessly focused on the what-next of the “Trump Experience” — and that right there is the phrase we should be using for this vertigo chapter in American life — we’re not hearing enough about the what-now of the lives to be affected, deeply affected, by the rabidly partisan, nationalist juggernaut that may be less than a month from ruling this nation.

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Not that those millions of lives don't have their own way to push back. Quiet as it’s kept in the dizzying (and real) age of digital media, the American people do have a bullshit threshold. Americans have a built-in detector for the presence of this existential agricultural staple of modern life, in journalists, politicians and everyone else. That detector’s not always engaged, and it sure as hell isn’t infallible. Sometimes it’s not working even when we think it is — we proved that on Election Day.

But over time the American public makes sense of things, calling leaders (and their policies) to account, even sometimes second-guessing its own first-blush judgment.

That begins to explain the buyers’ remorse result of a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll — one of the first big post-election surveys of the national mood. The poll, released Monday, found that 54 percent of the country is “pessimistic” or “uncertain” over Trump’s election — this a month before the man takes office.

“That's a significantly worse outlook than Americans expressed after the elections of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. A combined 66 percent were either optimistic or hopeful about Obama in January 2009, according to the same poll,” reported NBC News’ Carrie Dann on Monday.

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OUR B.S. threshold has been seriously tested by the Trump Experience over the last year and a half, the nation’s bullshit detector all but worn out. “Like any autocrat, he wins his followers’ trust — let’s call it a blind trust — by lying so often and so brazenly that millions of people give up on trying to distinguish truth from falsehood,” the New York Times editorial board said on Dec. 10.

And that’s where the press and the media, mainstream and otherwise, comes in. In 2002, one of President George W. Bush’s top brass said a New York Times reporter was living in the “reality-based community.” “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

It’s exactly that conjuring of convenient realities, that disposal of the very idea of Facts that the national press is predisposed to push back against. Or at least it’s supposed to.

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Read Summer Brennan, writing in Lithub, to get a feel for the challenges faced by MSM in particular and all content creators in general, as they prepare to face new vistas of government bullshit:

We have been beset with dangerous euphemisms. A neo-nazi becomes “an economic populist.” A lie becomes “a claim.” A propagandist becomes “a maverick” or “a provocateur.” Equality becomes “identity politics.” A public school privatizer becomes “a school reformer.” A climate change denier becomes “a climate contrarian” and a climate scientist “a climate alarmist.”

Journalists are being called “presstitutes” or “lügenpress,” which is German for “lying press,” a term adopted by the Third Reich. There has been a kind of doublespeak silencing on social media in which those speaking out against white supremacists are themselves called “racists,” and those pointing out misogyny are called “sexist.” A protestor becomes “an economic terrorist.” White people become “the working class.”

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IN THE WAKE of this editorial revisionism done in the service of the conservative agenda, more and more people post-election are using the word “resistance” seriously, in a context reactive to a perceived rising militarism — recalling the way the word was used by the French during World War II.

Keith Olbermann, a shit disturber from way back, is lately the host of an online commentary source, “The Resistance.” At Literary Hub, Brennan’s smart  exegesis of language post-2016 election is titled “Notes From the Resistance.”

This isn’t a criticism — far from it, just an observation. People don’t adopt such a powerful, historically freighted term lightly, and Americans haven’t really had a reason to do it in generations — arguably since the flashpoint era of the civil rights movement or that of the SDS and other “mobe” organizations arrayed against the U.S. government during the height of the Vietnam War.

Today, as it did generations ago for the French, the word itself carries an implicit grasp of the force in apposition to it. But today, during the Trump Experience, it’s different.

Americans seem to have already adopted the word in some expectation of failure, the crushing assumption that the forces of history and presidential politics are likely to prevail — that little or nothing can change the course of events over the next four years. There’s no other reason to presume there’ll be a need for a “resistance,” that there will be something, anything that malign, to push back against. Or maybe not. Maybe it's precisely that kind of cynicism, like Rick Blaine's in “Casablanca,” that the very idea of resistance inoculates you from.

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WHETHER THEY admit it or not, mainstream journalists (still hard-wired to observe the reflexes of objective journalists) subscribe to the last best use of “the resistance” as a rallying cry. With Trump bellowing during the campaign about making changes in libel law and otherwise punitively encircling the First Amendment, journalists don’t have any choice. It’s nothing more or less than enlightened self-interest. And it damn well better be.

The language we use to define this man and his administration for the next four years will say as much or more about the people using that language as it’ll say about the object of their attention. If journalists already smitten with snappy titles and quick-twitch terminology legitimize the shorthand (“Age of Trump,” “Trump’s America”), it makes the idea of social resistance — to say nothing of anything approaching objective reporting — that much more difficult.

Style note to copy desks across the country: Refrain from using “Trump’s America” and other encomium boilerplate in reference to the administration. It’s not Trump’s America. It never was and it never will be.

It’s just America. For 240 years that’s been enough, and it’s certainly enough right now.

Image credits: Trump: © 2015 Gage Skidmore. Election sentiment chart: NBC News. Olbermann Resistance promo image: Paul Henreid in 'Casablanca': © 1942 Warner Bros.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The do-over: A principled call
for the longest shot of all

IT’S AS CLOSE to a consensus as Congress as come to in the last eight years. A statement written and released by four senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, has articulated serious reservations over the apparent role of the Russian government in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.

A quartet of Democratic and Republican senators released a statement on Dec. 11, warning that fears of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election “cannot become a partisan issue.”

“Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyber-attacks,” said the statement signed by incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

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“The stakes are too high for our country” for it to become a partisan matter, the statement said. “We are committed to working in this bipartisan manner, and we will seek to unify our colleagues around the goal of investigating and stopping the grave threats that cyberattacks conducted by foreign governments pose to our national security.”

Former CIA analyst Robert Baer agrees, but also has a proposed remedy, one meant to address fears and concerns about the legitimacy of this recent election, and not just make changes in the future. In the classic schoolyard parlance, it’s called a do-over.

“It looks to me the Russians did interfere in our elections,” Baer said Saturday on CNN. “We’ll never be able to decide whether they changed the outcome, but I tell you, having worked in the CIA, if we had been caught in European elections or Asian elections or anywhere in the world, those countries would call for new elections — and any democracy would.

“The Electoral College before the 19th has got to know whether the Russians had an effect ...and whether they affected American opinion. When a foreign country interferes in your election and the outcome is in doubt and the legitimacy of the government — I don’t know how it would work constitutionally, I’m not a lawyer ... but ... if the evidence is there, I don’t see any other way [than] to vote again.”

Myra Slotnick, a Massachusetts playwright, agrees with Baer and started a petition on Monday at pursuing a new election “to take place in Federal buildings, and overseen by the Federal Government.”

It’s important to note that, for all the gravity and moment the senators’ joint statement created, it falls short of actually calling for a re-do of the presidential election of 2016. And for all the passion behind Slotnick’s effort, it’s more unlikely than a sunrise in the west. If this thing had any chance, no doubt the senators would discuss the legislative process of mounting such an effort — and rightly so: A do-over would require a constitutional amendment.

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LIKE BAER, I can’t even fathom the various hurdles that would have to be got over for this to happen. Many people will file this in the “long shot” round file along with current efforts to persuade the members of the Electoral College to reject President-Elect Donald Trump.

But Baer’s principle is hard if not impossible to argue with. If a representative or a diplomat of the United States is ever to utter the words “free and fair election” again, in an international context — wagging our righteous finger at some other country for some electoral impropriety — we need to get this right for ourselves.

Or, at least, we should.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

‘A different kind of merit’:
An open letter to the Electors

“... the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

— Alexander Hamilton

“Against the insidious wilds of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”

— from George Washington's Farewell Address, 1796

LADIES AND gentlemen: What The New York Times called “one of the most consequential analyses by American spy agencies in years” was for the Trump administration-in-waiting just another navigable speed bump on the way to the White House. "The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history,” Team Trump Transition said in a statesman, and mistakenly. “It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again'."

This, from The Times, is what they want to “move on” from: “Last week, Central Intelligence Agency officials presented lawmakers with a stunning new judgment that upended the debate: Russia, they said, had intervened with the primary aim of helping make Donald J. Trump president.

“The C.I.A.’s conclusion does not appear to be the product of specific new intelligence obtained since the election, several American officials, including some who had read the agency’s briefing, said on Sunday. Rather, it was an analysis of what many believe is overwhelming circumstantial evidence — evidence that others feel does not support firm judgments — that the Russians put a thumb on the scale for Mr. Trump, and got their desired outcome.”

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A few weeks back, Electors, Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, made it clearer still: “Trump had consistently refused to agree with the U.S. intelligence community's unanimous assessment that Russia was responsible for a campaign of cyber attacks and leaks against the Democratic Party, which officials said was intended to ‘interfere’ with Tuesday’s election.”

“Rejecting a fact-based intelligence assessment — not because of compelling contrarian data, but because it is inconsistent with a pre-existing worldview — that’s the stuff of ideological authoritarianism, not pragmatic democracy. And it is frightening.”

Michael Morell agrees. The former CIA director, in an interview in The Cipher Brief this past weekend, much the same assessment as Hayden about the Russian interference. “We need to see this for what it is. It is an attack on our very democracy. It’s an attack on who we are as a people. A foreign government messing around in our elections is, I think, an existential threat to our way of life. To me, and this is to me not an overstatement, this is the political equivalent of 9/11.

“In a world with so many threats and challenges facing the United States and in a city where politics and policy disputes color so many views, a President, if they’re going to be able to protect the country, they need someone to provide them with an objective, unbiased view of what’s going on in the world, and why it matters to them, and why it matters to the country. That job falls to the Intelligence Community led by the CIA, and that’s why the relationship between a President and the Intelligence Community and the CIA is so special," Morell said. “And right now that special relationship is being undermined.”

Meanwhile, NBC News reported late Wednesday that U.S. intelligence officials have a “high level of confidence” that Russian president Vladimir Putin was personally involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton aide John Podesta.

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SO, ELECTORS ... can we talk here? Because it’s all ... moving ... very fast and you’re getting calls and tweets from everybody right now, but ... this really needs to be said. To all of you. This is a letter from a concerned citizen to some of the most important people in the country right now. Maybe the most important. All of you won’t take this to heart; most of you probably won’t consider this more than a last-minute desperation move from the other side. But this is bigger than that. It always was. You know it. Certainly some of you do.

We’re on a slippery slope here, even though it doesn’t feel like it, because that’s how we do big changes in America, with enough of everyday life’s narcotic special sauce on it to make that change appear to happen so slowly, so incrementally, that it feels like standing still. It doesn’t feel like change at all. You should feel as empowered, as inspired to break with the sorghum of tradition as this election was itself a break with tradition. As this election was itself a break with history.

As you know, you needn’t be influenced by the idea that you’d be leading the nation into a constitutional terra incognita. This peculiar imbalance of headcount and electoral votes? We’ve been here before.

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HAPPENED in 1824. Andrew Jackson topped John Quincy Adams in both the popular vote and Electoral College. But Jackson didn’t win enough in the College. He couldn’t muster the required 131 Electoral College votes. So the matter went to the House of Representatives, who decided for Adams, who was inaugurated as president.

It happened again in 1888, when Benjamin Harrison trailed Grover Cleveland by more than 90,000 votes in the popular count, but the Republican captured the White House with 233 Electoral College votes (at that time more than enough) to Cleveland's 168 (inadequate then and now).

And we all know what happened in 2000, Al Gore edged George W. Bush by more than 540,000 votes nationally, but the hanging chads and the Supreme Court and a win in the College settled things.

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Democrat Hillary Clinton has widened her popular-vote lead over Trump by more than 2.8 million votes. With maybe 2 million votes still to be counted from at least three states, the potential is there for Clinton to widen her lead to perhaps as many as 3 million votes before it’s all over.

You don’t have to be bound and locked into the amber of a history that would have you be comfortable with disenfranchising almost 3 million Americans. Because regardless of whether they live in a swing state or not, their votes deserve to count. The one way to be sure that happens is to endorse the power of the popular vote. Where it counts. When it counts. Like now.

Harvard Law School professor and constitutional scholar Lawrence Lessig observed as much on Tuesday in The Daily Beast: “The ‘winner take all’ rule for allocating Electoral College votes (and not required by the Constitution) radically skews the voting power of citizens, based simply upon where they live. That skew is inconsistent with the constitutional principle of one person, one vote. An elector could well justify a decision to deviate from his or her pledge and vote against Trump based on this more fundamental constitutional ideal.”

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The bigger hurdle you have to get over is the obvious one: If not Trump, then who? This is where it gets thorny for some of you.

By virtue of that big Clinton lead, Electors, you must know there's a growing chorus of citizens calling on you for place your votes for Clinton; more than 4.5 million people have signed a petition at the web site making that very request.

Yeah, I know. Most of you would rather be waterboarded with Drano than do that. And so we come to the true elephant in the room: Finding the point where meaningful compromise isn’t just possible but achievable, then actionable.

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AT THIS POINT, and with ballots still coming in, Clinton has long since passed the point of making history as the presidential contender to win more of the popular vote than anyone who failed to be inaugurated.

There’s been some thought by Electors and others that the only viable, workable solution to this impasse is to conjure some tortured, Rube Goldbergian electoral contraption. They’ve proposed, for example, reaching out to a “consensus” Republican candidate” to replace Trump — Ohio’s John Kasich, say, or former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — taking the oath of office in January. This is implausible in a number of ways.

First, it sidesteps the presumably dispositive value of majority rule in the service of a clearly political conceit; choosing another Republican to be president only circumvents the will of the people according to the popular vote — again. It also raises the question of what makes this “consensus” choice even remotely palatable to Republicans, who found reason to dismiss Kasich in the primary season, and to dismiss Romney altogether (since he didn’t run this time). What would make that consensus candidate any more digestible to Republicans than it would be to Democrats or anyone else?

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SUCH A “consensus” candidate would likely be more unpopular than Trump. Rather than receiving the 62 million-plus votes Trump won at the polls, that Consensus Candidate would be chosen by the 538 of the College and, possibly, the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Fewer than 1,000 Americans would decide the outcome of an election that at least 128 million Americans voted in. By definition, that's more wholly un-democratic than the outcome we have now.

Others have promoted the noble but politically unrealistic idea of a Republican president teamed for the sake of national unity with a Democratic vice president. The potential for gridlock in such a “unity tandem” would be considerable, to say the least.

The best, Occam’s-razor solution to all this — the one that's least disruptive to history or the principle of majority rule — is the one Republicans want no part of: Accede to the wishes of the majority in the election and inaugurate Hillary Clinton as the 45th president of the United States.

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Lessig weighed in Nov. 24 in The Washington Post: “Like her or not, no elector could have a good-faith reason to vote against her because of her qualifications. Choosing her is thus plainly within the bounds of a reasonable judgment by the people.”

“We are all citizens equally. Our votes should count equally. And since nothing in our Constitution compels a decision otherwise, the electors should respect the equal vote by the people by ratifying it on Dec. 19.

“They didn’t in 1888 — when Tammany Hall ruled New York and segregation was the law of the land. And they didn’t in 2000 — when in the minds of most, the election was essentially a tie. Those are plainly precedents against Hillary Clinton.

“But the question today is which precedent should govern today — Tammany Hall and Bush v. Gore, or one person, one vote? The framers left the electors free to choose. They should exercise that choice by leaving the election as the people decided it: in Clinton’s favor.”

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SOME ARE announcing their expectation of the status quo by looking at the metric of rarity, the infrequent times through our history that Electors have broken ranks.

One journalist reporting on the election found that “In U.S. history, there have only been 157 "faithless Electors," who defy their state's vote. That's less than 1 percent, and 71 of those 157 faithless Electors changed their vote because of the death of the candidate their state had voted for.”

If that’s true, then, the consciences of the electors as a group haven’t truly been tested under fully extenuating circumstances. Almost half the so-called (and wrongly-named) “faithless Electors” up to now changed votes for the perfectly practical, defensible reason that the candidate dropped dead. There’s never been a reason to change a vote quite as good as this one is. There’s never been a test of the Electors’ consciences this big, never a challenge to their sense of civic mission this overwhelming.

And with the U.S. Supreme Court mathematically if not philosophically deadlocked, there may not be someones riding to the ostensible rescue with white hats and black robes. Like in 2000. And the stakes are higher now than they were then.

“We’re trying to be that ‘break in case of emergency’ fire hose that’s gotten dusty over the last 200 years,” maverick Elector Bret Chaifolo told Lilly O’Donnell of The Atlantic. “This is an emergency.”

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THE ELECTORAL College was created in an era when white men were the sole and presumptive existential threshold for seeking the presidency, basically the only people who could vote in the fledgling United States of America — the only people thought fit to vote in the fledgling United States of America.

That was a long damn time ago. Our society has experienced myriad social and demographic changes since then. It’s maybe never been closer to the envisioned “more perfect Union” than it is now, and the Electoral College is late to the game in recognizing that. This mathematically schizoid, needlessly bifurcated calculus for the world’s oldest participatory democracy needs to change.

It’s true, updating the pre-antebellum raison d’etre of the College for 21st-century purposes won’t happen overnight. The hard work of actually abolishing the Electoral College — the doing-away-with of what you do — is a long ways off, requiring more time and deliberation (and the continued sturdy debate as to whether it should be abolished to begin with). That process will truly be a process, long and brutal and involved — the legislative sausage-making and cat-herding that befits a proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States. That prospect lies in the future (even though changing the “winner-take-all” rule that trumps proportional allocation doesn’t even require a constitutional amendment).

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Lessig, writing Nov. 24 in The Washington Post, observed: “The Constitution says nothing about ‘winner take all.’ It says nothing to suggest that electors’ freedom should be constrained in any way. Instead, their wisdom — about whether to overrule ‘the people’ or not — was to be free of political control yet guided by democratic values. They were to be citizens exercising judgment, not cogs turning a wheel.”

And so this, ladies and gentlemen, is something you can do, and do in the here and now. The only thing more wrong than the events and disclosures that now compel your collective corrective courage is pretending that they’re normal, acting like it’s normal for foreign powers to impact our presidential elections, acting as if it’s not important enough to investigate and to question — for this election, not some vote in the national distance.

If you turn away from it this time ... what the hell happens next time?

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IN AN op-ed in the New York Times on Dec. 5, presidential Elector and Texas paramedic Christopher Suprun explained his reasoning for refusing to vote for Trump on Dec. 19th.

“I do not think president-elects should be disqualified for policy disagreements,” Suprun writes. “I do not think they should be disqualified because they won the Electoral College instead of the popular vote. However, now I am asked to cast a vote on Dec. 19 for someone who shows daily he is not qualified for the office.”

He continues: “The United States was set up as a republic. Alexander Hamilton provided a blueprint for states’ votes. Federalist 68 argued that an Electoral College should determine if candidates are qualified, not engaged in demagogy, and independent from foreign influence. Mr. Trump shows us again and again that he does not meet these standards. Given his own public statements, it isn’t clear how the Electoral College can ignore these issues, and so it should reject him.”

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Obliquely referencing his experience as a first responder on 9/11, he wrote: “That attack and this year’s election may seem unrelated, but for me the relationship becomes clearer every day. ... The election of the next president is not yet a done deal. Electors of conscience can still do the right thing for the good of the country.”

That’s a stinging rebuke to the president-elect from one of your number. We can’t yet know how many of you feel the same way.

But soon we will. At least we hope there are “many of you.” Simply put, the future of the nation depends on it. We — you — are faced with both an opportunity and a dilemma, maybe an opportunity wrapped in a dilemma, and the leverage to alter the current and likely ruinous trajectory of the United States. This is a moment that necessarily transcends the relative convenience of partisanship.

This is an American moment, more seismic than tidal, more practical than partisan. From now until you cast your votes, in real-world terms, you command the future of the country.

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THIS IS precisely what the Electoral College was built to be: a procedural corrective for the elevation, through one bizzaro-world fluke or another, of a manifestly unprincipled, incurious, underqualified candidate to the cusp of the presidency.

Read Federalist 68:

“It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations...

“And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place...

“The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States."

◊ ◊ ◊

With this election, we’ve conceded the right to expect other nations to conduct free and fair elections, we have for now vacated that moral high ground — the engine behind the dynamic of American exceptionalism (something I assume you all still believe in). This is not irreversible; the Electors can show the world that we recognize our folly, the gravity of this unforced error, and that we mean to correct it. In the college of the world’s nations, this one ameliorative action will do a lot to restore and further global confidence in the United States.

Don’t be swayed by the progress Team Trump has made toward fully cementing itself into the institution of the presidency: Cabinet appointments made, the names to go before the Senate, the mission-creep sense of inevitability that any or all of that may have aroused in your hearts and minds. Nothing he or his advisers have done cannot be undone. They haven’t “gone too far to turn back.” And that’s not the threshold that matters anyway.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mother Jones: Trump gets police union's
100-day wish list of demands

NATHALIE Baptiste has written what may be the most frightening piece of American journalism since the apparent election of Donald Trump. Her reporting in Mother Jones looks at the payback that a major police union hopes to extract from the president-elect in the first 100 days of a Trump administration.

Baptiste writes: “The national Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which boasts more than 330,000 members and is the country's largest police union, announced in September that it would be backing Trump because he "understands and supports" its priorities. (The organization declined to make a formal endorsement in the 2012 presidential election but in 2008 backed John McCain.) Trump's rhetoric on safety and law and order seemed to align with the right-leaning union. ...

“The policy ideas ... involve aggressively dismantling the modest reforms suggested by the Obama administration in a 2015 plan called President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, such as increasing the use of body cameras nationwide and implementing a national database on police use of force. The FOP also wants Trump to bring back racial profiling in federal agencies by lifting or changing the 2003 ban put in place by the Bush administration. The union suggests he should cut off some or all federal aid to "sanctuary cities" and bring an end to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), using its database to deport the individuals who had been protected by being included in it.”

Like most wish lists, the FOP’s is aspirational well beyond reality, but that doesn’t put its objectives outside the realm of possibility. Not with the Congress we’re about to get next year. Baptiste’s story points to a big and influential fraternal organization at the tip of the spear in Trump’s erstwhile “law and order” domestic social agenda, and the tip of the iceberg vis-à-vis Trump’s authoritarian inclinations.

Read the rest of it here. When you do and you shudder in public, just tell your friends you got a chill. It'll be the truth.

Image credits: Ferguson, Mo., police: AP/Jeff Roberson

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Alt-wrong: Bannon, Breitbart News
and the nativist campaign business model

WE MIGHT have expected this. Reuters reported on Nov. 9 that Breitbart News plans to punch up its domestic operations and will be launching sites in Germany and France, “as it seeks to monetize the anger and anti-immigrant sentiment unleashed by Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign.”

There may be work for journalists, if you can stand to do it. U.S. Editor-in-Chief Alexander Marlow told Reuters of his plans to hire more journalists in the United States as a way of expanding the Breitbart multimedia presence. Which is to say continuing an expansion that's been going on since early 2014.

“There’s going to be more hiring that goes on – I’m already picturing more tech reporting, more media reporting,” Marlow said. “We do a ton of politics reporting now so I don’t know that we’ll need to do more but we certainly aren’t planning on scaling back with anything.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s all part, you see, of the master plan of Stephen Kevin Bannon, the executive chair of Breitbart News, the CEO of the Trump campaign, and apparently soon-to-be White House strategist: the rise of the supremacist, authoritarian campaign model as an exportable phenomenon, one whose electoral success was ostensibly proven in the United States on Nov. 8th.

Bannon assumes, or certainly hopes, that what was seemingly achievable by the Trump campaign in the United States — a neophyte outsider bottles the nationalist lightning, seizes the day at home and advances a nationalist agenda abroad — can be successfully templatized across Europe and beyond.

Kurt Bardella knows how Breitbart News certainly figures in that.

Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who resigned from the company earlier this year, wrote a column in The Hill recently, saying that “Steve ran the site and controlled the content as a dictator, not only limiting the expression of his journalists but also purposefully changing the narrative to increase vitriol, playing to the fears of his readers.” And to the praise of white supremacists.

The first foreign edition of the Breitbart plan may well begin with feelers out to the possible French presidential campaign of Front National leader Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean Le Pen, the late ultra-right political bête noire.

◊ ◊ ◊

IN AN AUGUST tweet, Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post quoted Bannon from a conversation in July: “So, we look at themes globally as the center-right populist revolt against the permanent political class. Whether that’s [conservative author and political consultant] Peter Schweizer hitting on crony capitalism, or our guys in London following Front National in France. It’s all of one theme. We think that (pro-Brexit UK politician) Nigel Farage will be a politician that rises one day, Donald Trump the next. But it’s a bigger, tectonic plate.

“And that’s why we kind of laugh at, particularly cable news and sometimes other sites that, they sit there and they’re so wrong on everything. We just think, hey, they’re not taking the time to look at these fundamental issues, whether it’s what’s driving Bernie Sanders on the left or what’s driving this kind of populist, tea party revolt on the right.”

This tweet was to lay the groundwork for Bannon’s grand bid to exploit the divisions of the American election, to globalize its us-versus-them polarities, and to connect the election’s outcome with a rising nativist-nationalist wave of new leaders in other countries. But just like the “tectonic plate” of his nifty geological metaphor, “themes” can be messy, disobedient things, notoriously unpredictable. The thorniest challenge to such cultural superimpositions is overlooking how dissimilar one culture is from another in the first place. Or one country from another. The best laid plans of a Leninist often go awry.

◊ ◊ ◊

In England on Dec. 1, the Liberal Democrats ousted former Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith in a by-election vote that, according to The Guardian, “became a de facto plebiscite on the government’s Brexit plans.”

“Since Lib Dem Sarah Olney pulled off her spectacular win, having campaigned against a hard Brexit that would see the UK pull out of the single market, the government has insisted that it will not shift its approach to Brexit and that the result changes nothing,” The Guardian reported, alluding to the planned withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, in what many observers have called a vote for nativist economics, and a possible first step in a retrenchment to nativist culture.

On Dec. 3, Tim Farron, Liberal Democratic leader, went further, making it clear that his party smelled blood in the water: “My message to Conservative MPs is: we are coming for you. The result in Richmond Park shows that liberal Britain is fighting back against this divisive Brexit Conservative government. It was a vote for Britain remaining open, tolerant and united.”

“Open, tolerant and united.” Are there any three other words that are more the opposite of what the supremacists stand for?

◊ ◊ ◊

IT DIDN’T end there. Any rush to anoint the new nationalist authoritarianism as an irresistible geopolitical trend contends with what just happened in Austria. On Dec. 4, far-right anti-immigration champion Norbert Hofer was soundly defeated in the Austrian presidential election, stopped by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, and a staunch internationalist who vowed to be “an open-minded, a liberal-minded and first of all a pro-European federal president of the Republic of Austria.”

The BBC reported that among those congratulating Van der Bellen were Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor in Germany (Bannon’s next stop). Gabriel called the results in Austria "a clear victory for reason against right-wing populism."

And if Bannon and friends are pinning their hopes on Germany to advance their white-supremacist governance template, an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker should be instructive.

Ross writes: “Germany ... increasingly appears to be the strongest remaining bastion of liberal democracy. ... the country that long stood as a synonym for nationalist insanity has so far resisted political and cultural regression. Tellingly, it has rejected the libertarian code of the big Silicon Valley companies, with their disdain for privacy, copyright, and limitations on hate speech.

“On the day after the American election, which happened to be the seventy-eighth anniversary of Kristallnacht, a neo-Nazi group posted a map of Jewish businesses in Berlin, titled “Jews Among Us.” Facebook initially refused to take down the post, but an outcry in the media and among lawmakers prompted its deletion. Such episodes suggest that Germans are less likely to acquiesce to the forces that have ravaged the American public sphere.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s other evidence that, even in places where there’s no election in the immediate future, people just don’t have the patience for white supremacist rhetoric.

On Friday, Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party, was found guilty of inciting discrimination with his comments about Moroccan immigrants at a March 2014 speech in The Hague. Wilders, a charismatic but divisive Islamophobe politician who appeared at the Republican convention train wreck in the summer, gave an address filled with condemnations of Islam across the board. At one point, playing call-and-response, Wilders asked his audience some questions.

“Do you want more or less European Union?”

“Less!” the crowd said.

And then, “Do you want more or less Moroccans…?”

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

‘Zootopia’ creators on how their ‘weirdly timely’ story
trumped real-world events

YOU MIGHT recognize the teeming, diverse world of Disney’s “Zootopia” with its competing animal agendas, identities and personalities. The filmmakers behind the billion-dollar animation hit think it’s a lot like our own — never more so than now, in the wake of the presidential election.

“There’s no way we could have possibly foreseen this would happen, especially this year,” “Zootopia” co-director Byron Howard told TheWrap’s Steve Pond on Tuesday at Q&A following a screening of the film. “It’s weirdly timely — the fear-mongering, the political upset, the divisiveness …”

“It’s not like this is a new phenomenon, unfortunately,” said Phil Johnston, one of the film’s several writers. “You could say we were prescient but I think we were just paying attention to what was going on. It’s not like it’s been rosy for the last 400 years.”

The Disney film, which opened in March, follows an adventurous rabbit who leaves her small town bound for Zootopia to be a police officer — unheard-of at a Zootopia Police Department populated by animal predators. What follows is an allegorical study of how prejudice affects Zootopian society — and how principles of diversity and inclusion create a common bond between predators and prey. ...

Read the full story in TheWrap

Image credit: Zootopia poster: © 2016 Disney

'Jackie' creators illuminate Camelot's first lady,
and the end of America's happy-ever-after

“Jackie” screenwriter Noah Oppenheim’s interest in former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy began early.

“I’ve been obsessed and fascinated with her since was a little kid,” the screenwriter told TheWrap founder Sharon Waxman on Monday after a screening of Pablo Larrain‘s Oscar contender. “My mother was a huge admirer of Jackie Kennedy. When I visited my grandmother’s house when I was 6 years old, I found this box in her room of newspapers and magazines from that week in 1963 that she had saved. That launched a lifelong interest in the Kennedys and Jackie in particular.”

The Chilean director’s film, starring Natalie Portman as the first lady, explores the seven days between the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 and the funeral for John F. Kennedy, offering a look at a fiercely private life in its most public view. ...

Read the rest at TheWrap

Image credit: 'Jackie' poster: © 2016 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Election 2016: The postwar world

America has always been aspirational to me. Even when I chafed at its hypocrisies, it somehow always seemed sure, a nation that knew what it was doing, refreshingly free of that anything-can-happen existential uncertainty so familiar to developing nations. But no longer. The election of Donald Trump has flattened the poetry in America’s founding philosophy: the country born from an idea of freedom is to be governed by an unstable, stubbornly uninformed, authoritarian demagogue. And in response to this there are people living in visceral fear, people anxiously trying to discern policy from bluster, and people kowtowing as though to a new king.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times.

Joseph Chamberlain, 1898

Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.
Thomas McGuane, "Ninety-Two in the Shade"

WE’RE THREE WEEKS and change into the social experiment that some lazy and short-sighted lexicographers have wrongly labeled “Trump’s America,” and we can see where this is going already. There have been few surprises, and too many at the same time. See the mouthbreathers in the picture next to these words? This is the nation we’re invited to believe in today.

He hasn’t even raised his miniature hand to take the oath of office yet, but we’re already living witness to the vision of this nation according to Donald John Trump, a cold, impersonal, casually brutal, utterly transactional nation bristling with weapons and grievances; an angry country willing to walk away from its treaties, to galvanize the champions of its more divisive persona, and marginalize millions of its own citizens in the ultimately futile pursuit of reversing the course of its own history.

For the first time in our national history, incompetence is officially a presidential virtue; an absence of tolerance for dissimilar cultures, a lack of empathy with everyday people, and an absence of experience in governing are no barriers to attaining the American presidency.

For women, black people, Latinos, Muslims, immigrants and LGBTQ Americans, much of the subconscious panorama of life — challenging enough to start with — is now even more engaged in dealing with the dumb parade, those perpetrators of the various civil crimes, slights and microstupidities that happen on a daily basis, part of the existential capoeira that is life for us, and them, and others, in the United States of America. Numerous threats real and perceived, bad manners and supremacist acting out are the much of the order of the day. Let us count some of the ways.

◊ ◊ ◊

At least five mosques — five in California and one in Georgia — got the same corrosively hateful letter over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Among other threats made in the handwritten missive was one made on behalf of the apparent president-elect, Donald Trump. “He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”

The letters, which called Muslims “children of Satan,” were sent to Islamic centers in San Jose, Long Beach and Pomona, Calif. over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and, since then, from an address in Savannah, Ga. The letters hailed the apparent president-elect as the “new sheriff in town,” just the man who’ll “cleanse America and make it shine again.”

“You Muslims are a vile and filthy people. Your mothers are whores and your fathers are dogs,” the letters state. “You are evil. You worship the devil. But your day of reckoning has arrived.”

The letters went on to say that Muslims “would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THE HATE campaign targeting California houses of worship must be investigated as an act of religious intimidation, and our state’s leaders should speak out against the growing anti-Muslim bigotry that leads to such incidents,” Hussam Ayloush, executive director for the Los Angeles office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, said in a statement as reported by The Washington Post.

CAIR also said that the FBI questioned Muslims in eight states (and possibly more) in order to follow leads about a previous threat from al-Qaeda to carry out attacks before the Nov. 8th election, The Post reported.

Hassan Shibly, a lawyer and executive director of CAIR in Florida, told The Post that his clients were asked whether they knew the al-Qaeda leaders killed in U.S. military strikes last month and whether they knew anyone with terrorist intentions in the United States or abroad.

Friday, December 2, 2016

The shrinking window: Studios weigh shorter times
between movies in theaters and movies at home

IT’S BEEN a bane of the moviegoer’s existence for years: the long, long wait between when a popular film can be seen first-run in a neighborhood multiplex and when it’s available for home consumption. A digital-savvy public accustomed to (more or less) instant gratification may be getting closer to being, well, gratified a lot closer to immediately.

Bloomberg and TheWrap separately reported on Monday that some of the major film studios and exhibitor chains are nearing agreement on shortening the window between first-run-only exhibition and viewing in the privacy of the theater you pay for: your own home — possibly to as little as two weeks.

Citing studio executives with knowledge of events, Bloomberg reported Thursday that if the stars align on the various proposals, films will be priced between $25 and $50 for home viewers, a fat increase over the cost of movie tickets or the cost of VOD, or video-on-demand.

◊ ◊ ◊

One interesting break with the past is the apparent willingness of at least one studio to go it alone on changing the movie-release orthodoxy, whether the theater chains want to or not. Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara said as much on Tuesday at the Credit Suisse Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We’re working with them to try and create a new window,” Tsujihara said at the conference, as reported in TheWrap. “But regardless of whether it happens or not – whether we are able to reach that agreement with them, we have to offer consumers more choices earlier.”

A spokesman for Universal Pictures told TheWrap that that studio is “having discussions with exhibitors about shortening the release window.” And Bloomberg reported that early in November, Cinemark “held preliminary talks with various studios about a premium video-on-demand window, without disclosing details.”

◊ ◊ ◊

IF THEY build it, will they come? Still to be seen is whether consumers would be willing to shell out a hefty premium for bragging rights to seeing a minty-fresh film just out of first-run status without going to the theater or waiting for that movie to show up on Netflix, Hulu or DirectTV.

$25 — a high enough price for two tickets to see anything once — is at the low end of the estimate range; charging much more than that would make it harder for cash-conscious American consumers to justify. And while it’s perfectly palatable in expensive coastal cities like New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles, that price may not play well in the heartland. Let alone any price above that.

Ironically enough, the talk of shrinking the first-run window comes in a year of record growth for theatrical movie releases. Tsujihara estimated that the domestic box-office revenue would reach $11 billion by the end of the year, thanks partly to successes like “Doctor Strange” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Accelerated home-viewing releases wouldn’t be the death knell for theatrical movie releases; the in-theater experience is still a powerful economic draw. FBR & Company estimates that theatrical exhibition still accounts for 44 percent of feature-film revenue. But the handwriting for theatrical movie exhibition has been on the wall for a long time.

First, the release window’s been naturally shrinking for a while anyway. Bloomberg reports: “Chains including Cinemark used to enjoy as much as six months of exclusive rights to new releases. In recent years, that has shrunk to about 90 days, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. And by the third quarter of 2016, some new movies were available for online purchase two months and 26 days after their cinematic release.”

Second, static home-video sales are forcing a change in the old business model. DVD sales, for example, reportedly dropped by 12 percent last year, according to Digital Entertainment Group, an industry research org.

Third, newer strategies such as day-and-date (with films being released in theaters and via streaming on the same day) have loudly announced the future, even if exhibitors choose to ignore them. In October 2015, the movie industry’s collective hair caught fire over Netflix’s day-and-date release of “Beasts of No Nation.” Some theater chains went so far as to boycott the film altogether.

◊ ◊ ◊

DEFENSIVE CROUCHES like that may not do any good for much longer. Netflix, having already shifted the terms of engagement, is doing it again. On Thursday, eMarketer reported on changes Netflix made in its mobile app that let subscribers download videos and watch them offline, when and where it’s convenient for them. This is more than cord-cutting, it’s ’net-cutting; Netflix’s move means you don’t even need the Internet for timely video entertainment. Amazon Prime Video and You Tube Red also offer similar services.

Despite the advancing technology of the movies themselves, the legacy entertainment-industrial complex — the old union of studios and exhibitors — has been relying on a business model that’s more than 100 years old. That’s ending by degrees, and fast.

We’re at a point of détente between that long-established business model and the modern world of consumers, the people the movie business depend on. But that won’t last. Détente is another way of saying “reduction of tension” — a peaceful stalemate. Sooner or later, the tide of battle shifts to a winner and a loser. Sooner or later, with consumers’ money going into the registers that keep that business alive ... guess who wins?

Image credits: Warner Bros., Universal and Netflix logos: Their respective companies or parent companies. Feature-film revenue share: FBR & Co. via Bloomberg. OTT video service users chart: eMarketer.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

‘Snowtime!’ creators on getting the elements of winter,
childhood and conflict just right

The premise for “Snowtime!” is simple enough: Children on a two-week winter school break in a small village learn valuable life lessons when they form two teams for a huge (and greatly allegorical) snowball fight. But the Canadian film, which received a 70 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes, has won acclaim for a charming, whimsical look whose wintry persona is come by honestly. “Lord of the Flies” with snowballs, it’s not.

“We know what winter looks like, we know what winter feels like,” director Jean-Francois Pouliot, who lives in Montreal, said at TheWrap Screening Series on Monday in West Hollywood. “I came in with one objective as far as look and style: I want this film to feel like winter much more than ‘Frozen.’ I admire ‘Frozen,’ but I want this film to have the feeling of wet wool.

“Winter has very different colors. It has all the colors you see in our film,” he continued, while speaking to TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman alongside Paul Risacher, one of the film’s screenwriters.

“War is a messy, messy business,” a “Snowtime!” character says, making a statement that’s more than a little true of the film’s own creation. One of 27 films vying for the 2017 animation Oscar, it reflects collaboration; innovative ways of resolving indie and big-budget esthetics, live-action and animation realities — plus a grasp of the power of a familiar story, and the risks of finding a new way to tell it. ...

Read the full story at TheWrap

Image credits: Waxman, Pouliot and Risacher: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
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