Roger Ebert Home

Meet the Writers: Jana Monji

Jana Monji

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. Here's Jana Monji.

The Movie Love Questionnaire

Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up in a semi-rural small town called Chula Vista (San Diego County), a place where the sidewalk did end and dirt gave way to fields and houses without lawns. Just two blocks away from my house was a tomato field that belonged to a friend, another Japanese American family.

We used to sit in front of their house during the annual Founders' Day parade, Fiesta de la Luna. We loved the horses and my sister would later be marching in the high school band for that parade.

A man with a goat and a pet raccoon watched over a commercial flower field just beside the tomato fields. Sometimes we could get nearly spent cut blooms to take home to our mothers.

From time to time, we would get in the car to go off the paved roads and onto the bumpy roller coaster-like ride of dirt roads. Dust clouds rising behind us, we drove in the country where rabbits and rattlesnakes roamed and visited my grandmother on her farm. My mother was raised on a tomato and cucumber farm where you couldn't see or hear your nearest neighbor from your porch. That should explain somewhat why the red fruit was the subject of the San Diego-produced cult classic 1977 horror movie "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

During the dog days of summer, dust ran over the neighborhood like herds of phantom horses under Santa Ana's command. My white patent leather Mary Janes had to contend with tumbleweeds that seem only to exist in my memory as progress has paved over those fields for shops and houses. Those long winter rains, when water poured down from the heavens and surprised the parched earth, once flooding our garage also now seem like a fantasy in drought-stricken California of today.

During my childhood, I remember the food. My aunt made us plum jam. Every summer, my mother's friend brought jars of homemade strawberry jam and homemade dill and sweet pickles. We could get fresh tomatoes. For a few summers, we had a small patch of corn in our backyard.

My father was from NorCal. He was one of three children that stayed in the U.S. after both parents died. The younger three were sent back to Japan. For that reason, Japan wasn't three generations past, but ever present in my mind. My father loved sashimi and spicy food. My father hunted, deer and Canada geese; he fished, off-shore and fresh water, and sometimes deep sea. I remember having fresh fish for meals and burying the fishy remains for fertilizer. Once we had a wild goose for dinner.

My father died young, leaving my mother with three kids. We were poor, blue collar and I dressed in hand-me-downs and sometimes sewed my own clothes. We were never the cool kids, not by our clothes or the classes we took—my sister and I were considered gifted children (and I used to belong to Mensa). 

We spent hours at the local library and Balboa Park. I usually read books about horses and dogs, fiction and non-fiction. As a child, my favorite authors were Marguerite Henry, Walter Farley and Albert Payson Terhune. San Diego is very proud of the San Diego Zoo and the Wild Animal Park as well as SeaWorld and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. At one time, we—my mother, sister, brother and I, were involved with a San Diego rockhounding group which held meetings at Balboa Park and we learned how to grind stones down to cabochons. My sister and I took art lessons at the zoo and she and I still create art using the images of animals.

As children, we attended a Baha'i Sunday school so I was used to a racially and ethnically diverse group of people. I didn't realize this wasn't typical for the United States until much later. My first flight on an airplane was to Chicago where I have cousins and I spent one summer there as well as traveling to Urbana for a youth conference at same university that Roger Ebert attended.

My sister and brother both studied biology (zoology and marine biology, respectively) at UCDavis. I've attended about 10 different colleges and universities, beginning with UCIrvine. I was an exchange student to Japan twice, once to Taiwan and once to the United Kingdom (Rotary Fellowship). I have a bachelor's in fine arts, a master's in Japanese studies and a master's in print journalism and a certification in small animal massage. Perhaps more significantly, my first dance classes were at a college.

Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

My father loved watching cartoons and he took us to Disneyland, so I still love animation. My mother took us to see musicals, but usually as stage productions. Because we were poor, particularly after my father's death, we didn't see movies that often except at school assemblies or at the local library. However, we were transfixed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his documentaries on TV.

What's the first movie that you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

I remember snippets of a movie about horses—both my father and mother loved drawing horses, but it was surely a Disney production. The first full movie I remember seeing is "The Sound of Music" and then later, on TV, a production of the musical "Peter Pan." My mother was a fan of Mary Martin.

What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

The personality I was most aware of growing up would be Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his series of documentaries.

What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

I've never walked out of a film. Having been a theater critic who specialized in the equity-waiver venues, nothing on film could be as bad as some of the worst theater. Tom Provenzano, do you remember that space puppet opera that had two intermissions during which we talked about the value of meditation for preserving one's sanity?

What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

From the old films, I would say Jerry Lewis films such as "Cinderfella" or "The Nutty Professor."  I also love the old screwball comedies, especially with Cary Grant ("Philadelphia Story" and "His Girl Friday"). From animation, my favorites are "The Incredibles" and "Tangled."

What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

I remember my first movie dates with two different guys when I was a college freshman were to horror flicks. One was to some schlocky horror movie and the other to a college screening of "Alien" or "Aliens." I suppose because the guys thought I would be scared and cling to them. That didn't happen. Later I went to a double bill of "Alien" and "Aliens" at UCLA which my friend thought should pump us up to make us think that we could do anything thing, even our finals because Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) could survive and defeat the alien. My family used to watch horror movies on lazy Saturday afternoons.

The scariest film I've ever seen was "Chasing Ice" because it shows the reality of global warming and the value of water to this blue planet.

What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

"Roman Holiday," "To Catch a Thief," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally."

For the sweeping romance of man (or woman) and music, "Tango" and "Fados."

What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

The documentaries of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and other nature programs.

What book do you think about or revisit the most?

Besides religious texts, that would be the complete works of William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Edward Said's "Orientalism" and Richard Minear's "Victors' Justice: The Tokyo War Crimes Trial."

What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Probably "The Sound of Music" because of my love of Rodgers and Hammerstein and that would be the original Broadway cast with Mary Martin. I was raised on Rodgers and Hammerstein and still love their music.

I also listen to soundtrack for "The Tango Lesson" and the Carlos Saura movie "Tango." I was inspired to take tango lessons by these movies (just like Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" inspired me to take belly dance lessons).

Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

The "Planet Earth" TV series is beautiful, but the segment "Deserts" breaks my heart because I wonder what happened to the baby elephant.

What movie have you seen more times than any other?

That would be a contest between "The Sound of Music" and "Tango" ("Tango no me dejes nunca").

What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

For the longest time, meaning all through grad school (the first time), I used to pass for 16. So I remember being carded, but not what the movie was. My first R-rated movie was a revival shown on campus and was a dance movie: "Saturday Night Fever." I would  disco dance if my husband was willing.

What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

"The Black Stallion." I wish Carroll Ballard had directed more movies. I remember that I only knew about his last one, "Duma," because of Roger Ebert's review.

Also, I love "Pina," "Tango" and "Fados."

Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Robert Downey Jr., and Tom Hiddleston (based on his Shakespeare performances and not his appearances as Loki),

Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Audrey Hepburn, Emma Thompson.

Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

Hayao Miyazaki, who has now retired.

What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

"The Sound of Music," which Roger Ebert never reviewed. I also enjoy Jerry Lewis movies.

What film do you hate that most people love?

"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. My husband has to watch these alone and it's not so much hate as I like to mock.

"Gone with the Wind" is one movie I loved when I was younger and came to dislike as I grew older.

Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

Waiting in line to see "Psych: The Musical" was an all-night experience at San Diego Comic-Con that included seeing the cast and getting swag. I don't think I was at my most coherent and I didn't get cast autographs.

The other two experiences would be my first time at Ebertfest and meeting Roger as well as seeing "Life Itself" at the Virginia Theatre. Such a feeling of community and love is hard to replicate.

What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like the least?

Turn your damn cellphone off.

What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

I came from a small town and sometimes you might meet someone you know. There was more of a community feel to movie going.

I also used to love popcorn, but now it reminds me too much of a former workplace where popcorn was one of the freebies and we had several false fire alerts due to popcorn burned in the microwave. One of my co-workers ate popcorn every day at 3 p.m. Now the smell of popcorn reminds me of a bad work environment.

Have you ever damaged a friendship or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

When I was single, I used to ask for a list of a person's top ten movies. Some guys wouldn't even answer. Some guys tried too hard and listed movies they think I should like. That's sort of like the guy who tried to convince me he liked Evelyn Waugh and SHE was his favorite author.

I did have a friend who wouldn't see a movie with stars who were Scientologists and that wasn't an easy thing to do, but this friend had once worked IT for Scientology.

What movies have you dreamed about?

"The Creature of the Black Lagoon" in a childhood nightmare in which one of my family members was the creature. I have frequent dreams of flying for which I blame various super hero movies. Then there's the dancing from "Tango," "Dirty Dancing" and "Singin' in the Rain."

What concession stand item can you not live without?

I love Hot Tamales, but since I'm supposed to stay away from sugar. I like soft pretzels with mustard or real cheese.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews


comments powered by Disqus