Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

July 29, 2015

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One rarely hears Sophie Tucker’s name mentioned any more. Which is odd, considering that for most of the twentieth century she was one of the most popular entertainers in the US. She was known for her powerful voice and bawdy sense of humor. She projected an image of a strong, independent woman; long before it became fashionable to do so. She influenced such singers as Judy Garland and Bette Midler. Her friends included Al Capone and J.Edgar Hoover. (Members of Tucker’s family claim that Hoover would ask to borrow her dresses.)

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is directed by William Gazecki, and produced by Lloyd and Susan Ecker. It is a documentary about Tucker that draws heavily on Tucker’s private scrapbooks and letters, supplemented by interviews with people who knew her. The producers, however, find various ways to insert themselves into the story, in such a way that the film ends up being partly about them. This might have been unobjectionable if it were not for their self-important attitudes. For example, Lloyd Ecker tells a story about US GI’s playing a recording of Tucker’s “My Yiddische Mama” on the streets of Berlin at the end of World War II. This could have been an interesting side-note to Tucker’s life, but Ecker’s telling of the story is so long-winded and bombastic that you can’t wait for him to move on to something else. Even worse, Ecker later pretends to get choked up when he tells the story of Tucker’s last public appearance. This sort of thing is just insulting to people’s intelligence, and it actually does a disservice to Tucker’s memory.

On the bright side, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker will perhaps lead to a renewed interest in Tucker’s music and life. I just wish it could have been a better film.

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George Lucas and Star Wars Redux

April 22, 2015

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There has been a good deal of talk recently about the JJ Abrams reboot of the Star Wars franchise. This prompted a friend of mine to comment on Facebook: “I haven’t had the chance to get all excited about the new Star Wars trailer, what with me being an adult and all.” Judging from some of the comments on her thread, it appears that some people weren’t pleased with her comment. Yet I think there is an arrested development aspect to this whole Star Wars phenomenon. Most of us first encountered these movies when we were young and our tastes were still largely unformed. Since then, we insist on believing that there is something magical about these films, even though they’re actually not that good. I think we have all had the experience of going back to a favorite book or movie or TV show from our childhood and being dismayed to find that it’s not nearly as good as we remember it being. Our continuing obsession with Star Wars, and our desire for more Star Wars films seem to be an attempt to deny this experience.

What bothers me about the Star Wars films is that they invite us not to think. Because when you think about them, you begin to realize that there are all sorts of things in them that don’t really make sense. (Science fiction purists hate these movies because they make a mockery of the notion that sci-fi is about “ideas”. By the way, the recent film, Ex Machina shows that science fiction really can be thought-provoking.) So, better not to think and to just be awed by the spectacle of it all. As someone who has always valued films that challenge me to think, I can’t help but see Star Wars as a denial of what I most value about cinema.

Lucas has occasionally been compared to Wagner, which is not always meant as a compliment. For example, Lucas is, like Wagner, obsessed with prequels. (Wagner had originally set out to write just an opera about Siegfried, but he felt he had to explain everything that happened before, which resulted in the Ring cycle.) But the comparison isn’t just about size. Critics have accused Wagner of cheapening the myths upon which his operas are based. Likewise, the afore-mentioned science fiction purists have accused Lucas of cheapening the genre. They object to the way these films wallow in all the hackneyed conventions of comic books and Hollywood B-movies.

Perhaps the single best comment I’ve heard about these films came from my father. He was an engineer, and he went to see the first Star Wars film when it first came out. I asked him what he thought about it, and his only comment was: “The spaceships banked when they turned. Why? They’re in a vacuum. Why would they bank?”

He should have been a film critic.

M.I.A Knew about N.S.A. Spying Three Years Before News Media Did

June 23, 2013

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In 2010, the British pop singer, M.I.A., released a song called “The Message”, which contains the line: “Your headphones connected to your iPhone / Your iPhone’s connected to the Internet / The Internet’s connected to the Google / The Google’s connected to the Government.” Which is an accurate description of what’s been going on.

The Justice Department has just announced its plans to charge Edward Snowden with espionage. It seems that the government and its supporters in the news media are outraged that an N.S.A. employee dared to tell the American people what any intelligent person could have guessed.

Django Unchained

April 30, 2013

When Django Unchained came out, I heard many negative things about it, so I decided to wait until it came out on DVD. I now regret waiting so long to see it, for I found it thoroughly entertaining. What one has to understand about this movie is that it is not about slavery, it is about Spaghetti Westerns. Tarantino makes movies about movies. This may be incestuous, but nonetheless Tarantino is very good at it.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is rescued from slavers by a bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz needs Django to help him identify some wanted men. Schultz eventually takes Django on as his partner. Django persuades Schultz to help him rescue his wife, Hildy (Kerry Washington) from a slave owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DaCaprio), whose plantation is called Candieland.

The first half of the film is mostly a typical Western, but when Django and Schultz approach Candie, the film begins to take on a surreal quality. It is as though Django Unchained wants us to see slavery as something unnatural. The film goes too far however, when we learn that Candie’s shuffling slave housekeeper, Stephen (Samuel L Jackson) is the real brains behind Candieland. A common plot device in genre films is to have the character the audience least suspects turn out to be the real villain, but this struck me as a bit much.

The reviews I read gave me the impression that every other line in this film contains the n-word. I was surprised to find that this is not the case. Yes, the n-word is used, but considering the time and place in which the story takes place, no more so than one would expect. What actually did bother me was the use of the n-word in Pulp Fiction, which struck me as gratuitous.

Some dim-witted liberals have criticized this film because of its violence, making the unproven argument that violent movies and TV programs cause people to be violent. Tarantino has rightly rejected these arguments. Japanese pop culture is filled with images of violence, yet Japan has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world. How do these liberals explain this? Violence is the result of material conditions in society.

Django Unchained clearly is not a realistic depiction of slavery, but has Hollywood ever tried to portray it realistically? (Gone with the Wind obviously doesn’t qualify.) There have been a number of films that tried to portray the Nazi concentration camps in a realistic manner. (Pontecorvo’s Kapò is one title that comes immediately to mind.) Yet slavery is apparently considered too painful a topic, perhaps because we are still in many ways living with the consequences of that awful institution.

Paranoid Stylings: American Politics in the Twenty-first Century

January 18, 2013

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    This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

    – Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

It seems that everything that happens in America nowadays is part of some sort of conspiracy. A small, but very vocal group of people are now claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked, that it was a “false-flag operation”, carried out so that President Obama can have an excuse to “take away our guns”. One witness to the shootings has received threatening phone calls and e-mails accusing him of being in the pay of the government. There are also conspiracy theories about the Aurora Shootings.

You can laugh (or cry) all you want about this, but is it really any sillier than some of the claims made by the 9/11 “Truth” movement? I don’t know how many times I read somebody on Indymedia or some other website claiming that the “hole” in the Pentagon could not possibly have been made by an airplane, as if this person had spent his life observing planes crashing into buildings. And a surprisingly large number of Americans think that the Apollo moon landing was faked. One wonders why they just don’t go all the way and claim that everything on the news is faked.

In his essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter argued that there is a long history of conspiracist thinking in the U.S. He discusses anti-Masonry and anti-Catholicism in nineteenth century America, and he draws a direct line from them to the anti-Communism of the 1940’s and 1950’s. A common characteristic of these movements is a belief that the U.S. is under threat from secretive forces, usually of foreign in origin. (Think of how birthers try to claim that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.) Hofstadter sees these movements as being mainly rural in character. This may have been true of earlier movements, but it can’t really be said of the 9/11 “Truth” movement. It seems to me that the paranoid style is beginning to become so pervasive in this country that it is starting to crowd out reasonable critiques of our political and economic system.

Dr. Mabuse

November 11, 2012

Fritz Lang made three films about the super villain, Dr. Mabuse. This character was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s Dr. Moriarty, as well as by Allain and Souvestre’s Fantômas. Like these two, Mabuse heads a criminal gang that carries out daring and elaborately planned crimes. (And, like Moriarty, Mabuse is a scientist.) Like Dr. Caligari, he is an expert hypnotist. Mabuse, however, has the added twist that he has the ability to perform telepathic hypnosis, making people do things against their will, sometimes simply by looking at them, even when they have their back turned on him. The character of Mabuse was created by the novelist, Nobert Jaques, but he is best remembered for the Fritz Lang films in which he appears.

The four-hour Dr. Mabuse the Gambler was released in 1922 in two parts. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) uses his hypnotic abilities to swindle wealthy men at card games. With the riches he makes, Mabuse plans to make himself the most powerful man in the world. His activities arouse the suspicions of the courageous, but not overly bright, State Prosecutor Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke). The wheels of justice grind slowly, but they eventually catch up with Mabuse. At the end of the film he goes mad, and the police take him away to an asylum.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), the good doctor has been treated at the asylum by Prof. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.). Through a special form of hypnosis, Mabuse begins to control Baum’s mind. Baum then forms his own criminal gang. He identifies himself to his henchmen, who are not allowed to see him, as “Dr. Mabuse”. After Mabuse dies, he seems to completely takeover Baum. Whereas, in the first film, Mabuse’s aims were pecuniary, Baum/Mabuse shows no interest in making money. His crimes are committed merely for their own sake. This time he is opposed by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke), who is a little sharper than State Prosecutor Wenk. Lohmann foils Baum/Mabuse’s plan to release a cloud of poison gas over Berlin. At the end of the film, Baum/Mabuse voluntarily commits himself to his own asylum.

The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was the last film that Lang made, before he retired due to failing eyesight. At the beginning, we are told that Mabuse died in 1932, yet a criminal named Mabuse is now operating in Berlin with a new gang. It seems that the spirit of Mabuse lives on and has occupied another body. (I won’t say the name of the actor who plays him, since part of the suspense of the film is that it is unclear which character is actually Mabuse, although the cover of the DVD that I have effectively gives it away.) Mabuse controls the Luxor Hotel in Berlin. There are cameras installed in every room, which he uses to acquire information he can use for crimes. He has set an elaborate trap for Henry Travers (Peter van Eyck), an American industrialist. His aim is to take over Travers’s company so he can build a stockpile of nuclear weapons with which to take over the world. (Yes, that’s right, the hero of this film, Travers, is a nuclear arms manufacturer. That was the Cold War for you.)

It has often been argued that Dr.Mabuse the Gambler anticipates Hitler. At times, Mabuse does express a megalomania that is strikingly similar to Hitler’s. It seems to me that a more plausible explanation is that Mabuse represents a type of cynicism that was common in Europe (and particularly in Germany) following the horrors of the First World War. Hitler’s Weltanschauung happened to be an extreme form of this cynicism.

Mabuse can also be viewed as a Nietzschean, particularly in his attitude towards women. At one point he cruelly tells his lover that there is no such thing as love, only desire. Lang’s biographer, Patrick McGilligan, claims that this was Lang’s own view, even though the screenplay was actually written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou. This raises serious questions in my mind about the reliability of McGilligan’s biography.

In The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Baum/Mabuse speaks of creating an “empire of crime”. This reportedly prompted Goebbels to ban the film, because he feared that people would see it as a criticism of the Nazis. (It didn’t have its German premiere until 1961.) This makes me wonder: did Hitler, Goebbels, and other Nazis see themselves as creating an “empire of crime”? If so, what does this tell us about the historical conditions that created the Nazis?

In hindsight, there is something eerie about the fact that Mabuse tries to use poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. This is no doubt a coincidence, but one can’t help noting it.

In The 1000 Eyes of Mabuse, made after the Second World War, Lang makes an explicit connection between Mabuse and the Nazis. We are told that the Luxor Hotel was used by the Gestapo, and Mabuse employs secret rooms and cameras that they used. No doubt this idea came to Lang in response to the enormity of what had happened. It makes this film an unsettling diminuendo to what is perhaps the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Good Vibrations

September 27, 2012


Good, clean, wholesome fun. Plus backstabbing.

Just when you thought that the long, tortured saga of the Beach Boys couldn’t possibly get any more surreal, they are back in the news. That’s right, everyone’s favorite dysfunctional California family is at it again. Just recently, Mike Love, who owns the rights to the band’s name, fired fellow band members, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and David Marks. The reasons are pecuniary. You see, the Beach Boys have planned an upcoming reunion tour. Love explains:

    You’ve got to be careful not to get overexposed. There are promoters who are interested [in more shows by the reunited line-up], but they’ve said, ‘Give it a rest for a year’. The Eagles found out the hard way when they went out for a second year and wound up selling tickets for $5.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even pay five dollars to see the Eagles. Lyin’ Eyes was the most overplayed song of the 1970’s. Seriously, if I ever hear that song again, it’s possible that I might get violent. Anyway, you would think that Love would imagine the Beach Boys to be more popular than the Eagles. I guess he must be a self-effacing guy. He is still planning on having the reunion tour, although he will be the only original member of the band. That’s right, Love will be having a reunion with himself. Several years ago, I saw a reunion of Jefferson Airplane. It had two original members of the band, so I guess it qualified as a reunion of sorts. What Love is doing, however, strikes me as being the musical equivalent of one hand clapping.

Not surprisingly, there has been some sour grapes about all this. Brian Wilson said:

    I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David, and me… We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.

So, all Brian Wilson wants to do is have fun, whereas his cousin, Mike Love, wants to make money. Clearly, Love is the more serious person. I suspect that Wilson belongs to that 47% of the population that Mitt Romney says is sponging off the other fifty-three percent. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Love is a Republican.) You can’t stop progress, Brian Wilson. If you don’t like it, start your own band.

Oh, wait…

(The author is currently working on a biography of the Beach Boys titled, Those Wacky Wilsons. Look for it at a finer bookstore near you.)

Mad Russians and the American Left

August 31, 2012


Soon to be a contributor to CounterPunch and Dissident Voice.

Back in the 1930’s, there was a radio comedian named Bert Gordon, who was billed as the Mad Russian. His tagline was “How do you dooo!”, which you can hear in some Warner Brothers cartoons from that period. Gordon was enormously popular in his time, but, alas, he is largely forgotten today. Yet, the spirit of the Mad Russian lives on at some left-wing websites. At CounterPunch, Israel Shamir has become their resident authority on Russia, the Dreyfus Affair, and conspiracy theories.

Not to be outdone, CP’s rival, Dissident Voice, have their own mad Russian, Andre Fomine. His latest article is entitled Pussy Riot, the CIA, and Cultural Terrorism. In this article, we learn the shocking truth about Pussy Riot:

    No doubt it was not a single spontaneous act by a group of dissolute individuals but an episode of a much wider global campaign to shake and eventually ruin traditional societies and institutions. It is being carried out by the same powerful circles which inspired — e.g. offensive caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Oh, my. From Pussy Riot to Danish cartoons. Who could possibly be behind this fiendish global conspiracy? Need you ask?

    It is an open secret that avant-gardism became popular in the West in 1950-1960s thanks to unprecedented support from the CIA and was used by the United States as a powerful ideological weapon.

The CIA. Why, of course! Aren’t they behind everything?

Fomine ends his article with a dire warning: “The puppeteers of Modern Art and Cultural Terrorism keep carrying out their mission.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Modern Art! Run! Flee! Hide!

In another article, entitled The Last Victory of Muammar Gaddafi, Fomine exposes the sordid truth behind the “Arab Spring”:

    First, there was nothing spontaneous in the wave of 2011 North Africa and Middle East revolutions. The popular unrests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc were carefully prepared, organized, financed and supported through international media. Quite surprisingly, Al-Jazeera played a critically important role in fueling the conflicts within Arabic societies spreading disinformation and blocking truthful and sober voices.

The media did it! And, as we all know, media = CIA. Fomine, however, ends his article on a cheerful note:

    Thus we are entering very interesting, perhaps decisive times. Muammar Gaddafi has won his last battle despite eluding vigor and insolent pressure from everywhere. Will there be any new Gaddafis born by Muslim mothers to resist the new world order? We hope and pray for that.

More Gaddafis! That’s exactly what we need! The comments on the thread for this article were adulatory. (“Excellent article. I am glad that the author had the courage to write it.” I’m not sure that “courage” is the right word.) When one commenter was churlish enough to point out that Fomine offers no evidence to support his claim about the Arab revolutions, he was promptly smacked down by another commenter who wrote:

    How do you expect the writer can supply you with what you call proof?!
    Do you expect him to hack computers or bulglarise certain offices and displays the documents here for you to see??!! Is that make sense?!
    There is something called commonsense combined with knowledge of history, precedents and good analytical ability!

Yeah, who needs evidence?

As you can imagine, I wanted to learn more about this truly original thinker, Andre Fomine. I found out that he edits a web journal called Oriental Review. There, you can find excerpts from a book by Nikolay Starikov entitled Who Made Hitler Attack Stalin. The latest installment is titled Leon Trotsky, Father of German Nazism. Lest you think that this title is meant as a joke, here is how the article begins:

    Who organized the February and October revolutions in Russia and the November revolution in Germany? The Russian and German revolutions were organized by British intelligence, with the possible support of the United States and France.

That’s right, British intelligence must have engineered the Russian Revolution, since it was a strategic defeat for the British empire. This is common sense. Displaying his extraordinary narrative skill, Starikov tells us:

    Dropped into Russia by British intelligence, thanks to a secret agreement with German secret services aboard the “closed wagon,” the Bolsheviks refused to leave the political scene.

That’s right, the Bolsheviks (all of them) were parachuted into Russia inside a sealed train car. (It must have been awfully uncomfortable, but they were willing to endure anything for the revolution.) Later, we learn:

    The main funding supplied to the Russian Revolution from American bankers was transferred through accounts in neutral Sweden and briefcases of inconspicuous figures stealthily entering the country.

Because there’s nothing bankers love more than a government that’s dedicated to abolishing capitalism.

Just by clinking on certain links on the Dissident Voice website, you can find this treasure trove of occult knowledge.

How do you dooo!

The Dark Knight Rises

July 24, 2012

I remember a Batman comic book I read when I was a kid. In it, the Joker kidnaps Police Commissioner Gordon. When word of this gets out, the citizens of Gotham City immediately begin smashing windows and looting stores. The absurdity of this made me laugh. I realize now, however, that this was no joke. This was the logic of the police state: the lower orders must be kept in awe of authority, otherwise all hell will break loose. This is why some people see nothing wrong with police officers beating up Occupy protestors or shooting black teenagers. It is also the logic behind the exaggerated fear of mob violence that exists among the ruling elites in this country. After the earthquake in Haiti, shipments of food and medicine were held up, because, we were told, “order” had to be restored first. Much the same thing happened when New Orleans was flooded.

Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, who wrote the screenplay for The Dark Knight Rises, must have read that same Batman comic book that I did. When, in this movie, the bad guy, Bane (Tom Hardy), traps the entire Gotham City Police Department in the subway, angry mobs suddenly appear out of nowhere and start looting people’s homes. Lest there be any doubt as to the film makers’ political inclinations, Bane has his followers storm a prison and release all the prisoners. This is clearly meant to put us in mind of the storming of the Bastille. It’s been over two hundred years since the French Revolution, and conservatives are still fuming about it.

The story of this film boils down to this: a group called the League of Shadows wants to destroy Gotham City, because it is “corrupt”. It’s not clear why they find this objectionable, or why they consider Gotham to be worse than other cities in this respect. League member Bane takes over the city and subjects it to a reign of terror, while cutting it off from the outside world. He takes a fusion reactor and reconfigures it into a nuclear bomb. The bomb is unstable and will eventually go off by itself after some months. My question is this: if the idea is to destroy Gotham City, then why not just detonate the bomb? It appears that he wants to play some sort of mind game with Batman (Christian Bale), though the film is not too clear about this.

One of the things I liked about both The Avengers and X-Men: First Class is that these films don’t take themselves too seriously. The Dark Knight Rises takes itself extremely seriously. This film just oozes self-importance, starting with the title. (Why not just call it “The Return of Barman” or something like that?) The characters give overwrought dramatic speeches. Lots of them. Hans Zimmer’s musical score ranges from lugubrious to bombastic. It is perhaps fitting that Batman is played by Chirstian Bale, the most self-important actor in Hollywood.

At 165 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises is way too long. You could cut a lot out of this film, and it would be a better movie. There is, for example, a subplot about Joseph Gordon-Levitt rescuing a bunch of orphans that does nothing more than slow down the story. Also, the action sequences are sometimes confusing. During a motorcycle chase scene, it looks as though Batman has captured Bane at one point, but it subsequently turns out that Bane has actually gotten away.

I must say, though, that I did like Anne Hathaway as Catwoman. Unfortunately, she is off screen most of the time. I would like to have seen more of her and less of Bale and Gordon-Levitt.

Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012)

July 11, 2012


Ernest Borgnine in Johnny Guitar

The most critically acclaimed film that Borgnine appeared in was The Wild Bunch. I have always considered this film to be a bit over-rated. I actually got more enjoyment out of Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray’s campy western with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden. Borgnine played one of the bad guys. (Truffaut also liked this movie a lot, so I’m in good company.) I would argue, however, that Borgnine gave his best performance as Sgt. Katczinsky in a television adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front.

The first time I saw Borgnine was on McHale’s Navy. This show was actually a rip-off of Sgt. Bilko, but I was too young to know that at the time. I found it pretty funny, although I remember that I thought it a bit disturbing that they would have the laugh tracking running while a Japanese submarine was blowing up. I came to associate Borgnine so much with the role of Commander McHale, that I was surprised to learn that he was usually cast as a heavy. The first movie I saw him in was Ice Station Zebra, in which he played a Russian baddy. This movie made a strong impression on me at the time. It was perhaps the start of my life-long fascination with the cinema.

Borgnine once said about acting: “The trick is not to become somebody else. You become somebody else when you’re in front of a camera or when you’re on stage. There are some people who carry it all the time. That, to me, is not acting. What you’ve gotta do is find out what the writer wrote about and put it into your mind. This is acting. Not going out and researching what the writer has already written. This is crazy!” Take that, method actors!

Borgnine will be missed.