A Cello Story

April 22, 2014


A while back I bought a used cello from my pal John Wells. He’d bought a newer, better one and I ended up buying his. I had played the string bass for many years, toyed with learning how to play the cello back in the late-1980s, and decided to take it up again.

John was extremely thorough about the cello’s condition, entirely playable but imperfect. Specifically, he pointed out that the neck had snapped off in an accident, and that he had taken it to a cello specialist who had repaired the damage. The crack in the neck was plainly visible, but this didn’t seem to effect the sound in any discernible way.

After buying the instrument, I decided to have it checked out generally, and to have several of the older strings replaced. Late one Sunday evening, my wife, daughter and I visited the string instrument shop of a man I’ll call Ichiro Sato. He took one look at my new cello and chuckled at its supposedly sorry condition.

I explained that I was hardly a member of the Tokyo Symphonic Orchestra, that I knew I hadn’t brought in a Stradivarius, that I was only interested in having a playable cello to fiddle around with (so to speak), so that I could re-learn the basics about how to play it.

“This is bad,” he said, barely containing his giggles. “Whoever repaired the broken neck did a really terrible job,” he said. “I’m reluctant to take the, ahem, ‘instrument’ apart to examine its insides because that will cost you a lot of money with no guarantee I can even fix it. I could restring it but because of this half-assed repair job I’m concerned the pressure could snap the neck clean off at any moment.” Then he asked if we could provide him with the name of this loser who made the repairs. I think he was planning on reporting him to the Japanese Better Business Bureau.

For a few minutes of awkward silence I mulled my limited options. And should I mention any of this to John? Surely none of this was his fault.

Finally, with a heavy sigh, Mr. Sato gave us a small glimmer of hope. “Well, I don’t know, maybe whoever did this stuck some sort of bolt in there to hold it into place. I could try restringing it and, who knows, maybe it’ll last a month or two.”

He told us to give him a week. Six days later I was at a party, an opening of a photo exhibition for which my friend John was a contributing artist. I sheepishly told him my story, trying to soften the blow with the suggestion specialty artisans like Mr. Sato are probably pretty territorial and critical of their competition.

“Wait -” John interrupted. “Sato? Ichiro Sato?!”

“Yeah. You know him?”

“I sure do,” John replied. “He’s the guy who fixed the cello in the first place!”

Leno’s Lot

February 7, 2014

A couple of years back I wrote this piece about attending a taping of one of the very last episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. This week, another story comes to mind.

When I moved to Southern California in 1993 the first place I lived was an apartment complex near the corner of Western Avenue and Glen Oaks in Glendale, just east of the Burbank city line. Just a few buildings away from where I lived was neighborhood grocery story called Jons. “Jons” was clearly imitative of the much more popular Vons chain. For all I know the first Jons might well have been a failed Vons where the owner decided to save money by replacing  that first letter. Very soon after moving into the area a film crew set up to shoot scenes for The Naked Gun 33 1/3 at Jons, and I got to very briefly meet Leslie Nielsen and Fred Ward. Ward wasn’t in the little grocery store montage that opens the picture, but I suspect he just wanted to be there and hang out that evening.

The store looks pretty generic in the movie but in truth its customers were overwhelmingly Armenian, and so it catered to their cuisine tastes, not mine. I used to joke that when I’d get in line with customers buying big trays of tripe and skinned sheep’s head, my carton of milk and loaf of bread would generate bemused stares.

And so I did most of my shopping down the road at a big place called Pavilions, right down the street from both the Walt Disney Studios and NBC’s Burbank headquarters, where The Tonight Show was filmed. It was Pavilions’ proximity to Disney, I suspect, that accounts for the time I went there late one night to buy a toilet plunger only to hear over the P.A. system, “Ladies and gentlemen, come and meet Fess Parker, Davy Crockett himself!” I did and even bought of bottle of his then-new line of wine.

Pavilions had a lot of advantages over other grocery stores and one big disadvantage: its vast parking lot was overrun with beggars. At that time, anyway, “Spare change, mister?” “You got any spare change?” was as much a part of the Pavilions experience as the checkout aisle.

Over time, I developed a kind of sixth sense and could tell when people were about to hit me up for some money. So one afternoon I’m loading up the bag of my car with groceries when I began to sense it was about to happen again. Sure enough, out of the corner of left eye I began to realize I was being approached, not just by one homeless guy, but a small mob, maybe five or six guys.

Then a friendly, familiar voice said, “Excuse me sir, would you mind if we asked you a couple of questions?” It wasn’t a beggar but Jay Leno, Johnny Carson’s replacement on The Tonight Show. He and his small crew were there prowling the lot, filming a comedy segment for that evening’s show. I decided to play along as Jay quizzed me about traffic laws. It was pretty obvious he was looking for outrageously stupid and funny responses, but my answers were either correct or incorrect but not funny. About the only one I remember clearly was, “Is it okay to do a U-turn in front of a police station?” I watched the show that night but I wasn’t on it. Working right down the street Leno, as it turns out, often filmed segments in that parking lot, and I saw him back there several more times through the years.

Tonight Show

But briefly meeting Jay – who, apropos of nothing, has maybe the bluest blue eyes I’ve ever seen – was a pleasant experience. He was exceedingly polite and friendly and neither he nor his crew were as pushy and exploitative as many other TV crews I’ve encountered.

About six months ago we got Hulu and I began watching the previous night’s Tonight Show while making dinner. I had been pretty ambivalent toward the show since Carson’s departure but, I must admit, rather like where Leno has taken it and am sorry to see it end.

World Cinema Paradise

December 24, 2013

Those among you kind enough to follow this modest blog for the past few years will want to know about a new website I’ve created called World Cinema Paradise.

Citizen Kane 1

I discuss this in more detail on the “About Us” page on that site, but basically it’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while, prompted in part by the cataclysmic impact the Internet has had on professional cinema history scholarship and general reviewing and feature-writing. We’re all aware of how the Internet has all but destroyed the newspaper industry, the viability of print magazines, and publishing in general.

I started out writing local cinema-based feature stories and reviews back in 1989. The very first article I wrote paid, I think, $250, and when I went to work writing new movie reviews for The Ann Arbor News, the going rate back then was $65/review. At one point I also wrote two regular home video columns and began writing books as well and, while it really wasn’t enough to live on full-time, at four or five reviews a week plus the two columns it was still a decent chunk of change.

Nowadays, even the biggest and most prestigious websites pay comparatively little, and most pay not at all, even for professional-level writing requiring hours of researching and writing. We as professional writers erred in allowing this to happen. But happen it did and the result has been that many of the best writers have simply given up on their craft and unique skills or write for nothing simply because they have to write, at any cost.

World Cinema Paradise is something of an experiment, to see if it’s possible in this day and age to actually pay experienced, quality writers and offset this cost with Internet advertising and other revenue. The numbers just might not be there to really make this happen, but we’ll see. I’ve slowly been assembling contributors from around the world in hopes of creating a kind of Rolls-Royce of cinema scholarship and reviewing. Visit the site and you’ll see articles by esteemed television scholar Stephen Bowie (his terrific insight on film largely untapped until now), Seven Samurai audio commentator and former AFI Kennedy Center film programmer Michael Jeck, silent film authority Anthony Balducci, writer-director and former American Cinematheque programmer Dennis Bartok, DVD Savant Glenn Erickson, Lee Marvin biographer Dwayne Epstein, and more. In the coming weeks we hope to post new articles and/or interviews with such luminaries as Steve Bingen, Jon Burlingame, Shawn Levy, Ted Newsom, Ron Palumbo, Christopher Potter, Steve Ryfle, Michael Schlesinger, David Strohmaier, John Sinnott, Randy Skretvedt, Gary Teetzel, and Bill Warren, with even more to follow!

Our aim is to cover a wide range of eras, genres, and tastes with better, more thoughtful and personal writing than one usually finds elsewhere on the Web. The articles already posted reflect this: Glenn’s in-depth look at the different Blu-ray versions of The Big Gundown; Michael’s fascinating, funny and sad story of the AFI Theater; Dennis’s personal remembrance of director Ken Russell; Stephen’s eye-opening examination of sexploitation’s auteurs; Dwayne’s perceptive look at Lee Marvin professional beginnings, years away from movie stardom. (We hope to run a lot more in the way of film book and bio excerpts.) Where other sites are obsessed (justly so in some cases) with the latest Blu-ray and DVD news, World Cinema Paradise will spend as much time looking back at the pre-home video, pre-Internet days of movie-watching and writing, though we’ll also be covering selected new and recent releases, such as Dusty Somers’s thoughtful review of Museum Hours. We’ll look back at specific films, special screenings, and movie theaters that made a strong personal impact and influenced our writing and appreciation of the movies.

Anyway, take a gander when you have a chance. Like the rest of the Internet we’ll be slowing up for the holidays with lots of great stuff to follow after the New Year. Enjoy!

Japan vs. Wall Street

November 5, 2013

Probably like me you are intensely frustrated that the Wall Street bankers responsible for the ruination of the American economy haven’t been prosecuted, let alone gone to jail for their incredibly reckless, selfish, and massively destructive illegal acts.

Japan is hardly the perfect model for government- and self-regulation of a country’s banking system, but recently a scandal concerning one of its biggest banks, Mizuho, illustrates a sharp difference between how America and Japan treats dishonest lenders.


Essentially Mizuho broke the law by knowingly loaning money, about USD $2 million in small car loans, to organized crime, the Japanese Yakuza. Mizuho, incidentally, turned my wife and I down for a home loan seven years ago even with the substantial down payment and collateral we were offering, but I guess Mizuho thought gangsters a better class of clientele.

What’s interesting about this is the fallout from this scandal. Despite the puny amount relative to the Wall Street meltdown, here’s what’s been announced:

  • The chairman of its banking unit will resign
  • The president will work for the next six months without pay
  • Thirty executives will get substantial pay cuts
  • A dozen or so former executives will be required to return some of their financial compensation, presumably bonuses
  • … and the Japanese Parliament may still take further legal action against the bank

Is this adequate punishment? Maybe, maybe not. But if the Japan’s conservative government and banking industry can impose punishments like this over a mere $2 million scandal, why can’t Congress go after Wall Street’s crooks who’ve cost the U.S. economy trillions?

シネラマ 日本!

November 5, 2013

Like a lot of you, I’m eagerly awaiting arrival of my copies of the latest Cinerama films on Blu-ray: Cinerama Holiday (1955) and Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958). I’ll be reviewing the latter for DVD Talk and the former, well … more about that later.

So excited about these am I that the other night I tooled around the Internet, curious about Cinerama exhibition here in Japan. I stumbled across a number of fascinating images. Here are are few that I discovered:

Cinerama Cinerama 2 Cinerama 3 Cinerama 4 Cinerama 5 Cinerama 6 Cinerama 7 Cinerama 8 Cinerama 9






Doing the マカレナ

October 22, 2013

In my capacity as a cinema historian and writer of books about Japanese film, occasionally I’m asked to appear on a radio or television show to discuss my work. Sometime in 1996, while still living in Los Angeles, I was invited to appear on a Japanese television show filming at Universal Studios. Wrongly, I assumed I was invited to talk about my interests in Japanese movies and perhaps what was then my newly published book, The Japanese Filmography.

The night before the morning shoot, I received a telephone call from one of the producers, asking me if I wouldn’t mind bringing along my collection of kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movie) toys.

“Toys?” I asked.

“Yes, we understand you have a large collection of vintage Japanese toys relating to Godzilla and Gamera and all that.”

“I’m sorry,” said I, “But you’re mistaken. I have a few things I’ve picked up over the years, but not very much and certainly nothing spectacular.”

There was a long pause at the other end of the line. “Oh. Well, could you bring everything you got anyway?”

I said, “Sure,” but was puzzled by this strange development. Until the following morning, that is, when I discovered that I wasn’t going to be interviewed at all, but rather somehow I had been volunteered to appear as a contestant on a Japanese game show called 『開運!なんでも鑑定団』(“Kaiun! Nandemo kanteidan”), that’s been airing on the TV Tokyo network since 1994. The show was such a hit at the time they were filming a special Hollywood edition for which I had become a bemused and reluctant participant.


The show, like most Japanese game shows, resembled a colossal, frantic pinball machine, and built around the premise that contestants would bring in family heirlooms, collectibles, and other treasures. They’d take a stab at guessing the item’s worth, and professional appraisers would determined their actual value. Sometimes an item believed to be worth mere hundreds of dollars turned out to be worth a hundred times that amount, but more often than not contestants went home humbled.

Sitting by my side were the show’s other Hollywood contestants, mostly transplanted Japanese and Japanese-Americans. One elderly American lady had brought pottery handed down to her through the generations, china that once had belonged to Commodore Matthew Perry, who in 1854 helped open Japan to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa. A young Japanese couple brought another treasure that certainly caught my eye: an original 3-sheet poster for the American version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters! And me? I had a box of plastic Godzilla toys that had been gathering dust on top of a bookcase. I slunked in my seat.

Sure enough, when I was called to the stage by the typically goofy-looking Japanese comedian hosting the Hollywood segments, I didn’t impress anyone with my meager collection of plastic Baragons and Mechani-Kongs. At least I correctly guessed their worth, about $300. The woman with the Commodore Perry pottery, on the other hand, was a big hit. She was clearly exactly what the show had been looking for: a little old lady utterly baffled by the comedian’s broad gestures, and genuinely startled by an appraisal so high they’d have to confirm the amount back in their studios in Tokyo. Could she leave for Japan tomorrow?

The items she had were indeed valuable. When the show’s producer sent me a VHS souvenir copy of show, I finally got to see her in the filmed-in-Japan segment, still looking as startled and nonplussed as she had at Universal. I didn’t come off too badly, but it’s not an appearance I’m anxious to see again anytime soon.

And yet, the most memorable part of the day had nothing to do with the show. Earlier that morning we all met in convention room space at the Universal Studios Hilton Hotel, where the crew and their equipment was based. After filming close-up insert shots of our family treasures, we were to take a little shuttle bus to the filming location, near the front of the park. I ended up standing next to two well-dressed, middle-aged Hispanic gentleman. They, it seems, were waiting for a similar shuttle bus headed elsewhere. They asked me what I was doing there, and I attempted to tell them my strange story. “Oh, we’re doing a television interview, too.” one of them said. “We’re musicians.”

Only as they boarded their bus did I recognize them as these guys, Antonio Romero Monge and Rafael Ruiz Perdigones:

To the disappointment of many, I did not take this opportunity to strangle them for their mind-searing contribution to popular culture.


Conventional wisdom is that after the disastrous government shutdown, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, led by Ted Cruz, would never try something so stupid and costly like that ever again.

I believe just the opposite is true that, having tasted so much power over the global economy, Cruz and his misbegotten bunch are emboldened to try the same stunt over and over.

Further, it seems to me Cruz may well be moving toward something I’ve not seen suggested anywhere else, but which already exists in another form right here in Japan.


Japanese Diet


The Japanese Diet consists of two houses of parliament. The current ruling party is the Liberal Democratic Party, which is literally neither. It’s basically the equivalent of the Republican Party in the United States, minus the international hawkishness. The Democratic Party here is more or less like the Democratic Party in Japan. Below that are a number of smaller parties with relatively few seats in the Diet: the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party, as well as tiny boutique parties usually splintered off the Liberal-Democratic Party, such as the People’s New Party, which holds a whopping three of the 722 seats in both houses.

But here’s something to consider. The third most powerful political party in Japan for the last ten years or so has been the New Komeito Party, a religiously conservative group founded by members of the Soka Gakkai, the somewhat controversial Buddhist movement based on the teachings of Nichiren.

When I first moved to Japan in 2003 the New Komeito Party was at the peak of its powers because it had formed a coalition government with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. This coalition dramatically undercutting the minority Democratic Party’s powers while at the same time increasing the New Komeito’s. The ruling Liberal Democratic got most of what it wanted, though much of the legislation it proposed required the approval support of the New Komeito Party in order to pass.

I think there’s a darn good chance that by the 2016 elections in the United States, something similar will emerge. I think Ted Cruz, or whomever is the Tea Party’s Flavor of the Month by then, will officially break away from the Republicans and form their own legitimate political party. Cruz presumably knows he hasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever being elected president or even supporting the 2016 Republican ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate.

But, as the leader of a third political party forming a coalition government with the Republicans, he could yield all the same the kind of power and sway he did during the government shutdown. Non-Tea Party Republicans famously hate the man and have for some time trying to figure out how to rein him in. But if Cruz (and others) formed an actual third party, the reins would be off and he’d wield more power than ever, God help us.

I hope Cruz isn’t reading this.