By Brian Hu
Though it has been mere hours since we learned of the passing of Roger Ebert, there has already been an outpouring of surprise, grief, and appreciation of the great Chicago Sun-Times film critic. Among those going out of their way to blog, tweet, and share their favorite Ebert moments are those who recall how important Ebert has been to the history of Asian American cinema. His impassioned defense of Asian American voices at a screening of Better Luck Tomorrow at Sundance in 2002 is legion – already immortalized in documentaries like BLT: Genesis and Hollywood Chinese, and today passed around on Twitter and Facebook as a document not only of Roger Ebert’s fierce wit, but also as a reminder to ourselves to continue to find the fire in our own voices.
During his career, he was known, and often criticized, for his thumbs and stars. I’m glad to see that today he’s remembered for his true contribution to film culture: his words. In print, on TV, and online, Ebert always knew how to make his words count. When he lost his voice to cancer in 2006, his words became even sharper and more articulate. And more cherished.
The shock of seeing Ebert’s face post-surgery, and the sorrow of finding that one of TV history’s best talking heads could talk no more, turned many of us back to YouTube to listen to Ebert’s most famous barbs with his late co-host Gene Siskel, or to his DVD commentaries, considered among the best in the format. We went online and discovered that Ebert also wrote 140 characters better than anyone else. We dug into the archives and found Ebert’s masterful gonzo interview with Lee Marvin in the back issues of Esquire. The man knew what words could do.
We of course already knew this, and today, many of us went online to tell stories about what Ebert’s words have always meant to us. Many of these stories are intensely personal – a memory of hearing one of his famous “Cinema Interruptus” lectures, of meeting him in person, of the review that helped launch a career. I can’t imagine this sort of gratitude showered upon any other movie critic – or any critic for that matter. It’s because Ebert was the rare populist who never talked down to the elites or to the common moviegoers. He wanted to elevate the reader, not because he was smarter, but because he wanted us all to love movies as much as he did. His opinions certainly were not always popular; he also alienated many with his unabashed liberal views. But he wrote with honesty, conviction, and generosity. Better than just about any critic, he trusted his instincts, never afraid to give a Hollywood franchise film his highest compliments and an Abbas Kiarostami film one star. But that honesty meant so much more when he found the words – before most critics had even spoken – to shed light on his elation over independent films like Prashant Bhargava’s Patang, Patrick Wang’s In the Family, and of course, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. His words mattered not only because Ebert was a wordsmith, but also because they were spoken so closely to his heart.
Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies debuted the same year I was born, so as long as I remember, he was always around. When I was in junior high, our family bought a new VCR, which was bundled in cellophane with Roger Ebert’s 1996 Video Companion, the latest edition of Ebert’s classic and recent reviews. I casually started reading reviews of films I’d seen, mostly Hollywood titles from the early 90s. Soon though, I was reading the reviews not for the films, but for Ebert’s voice, so the fact that I soon knew about Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, and Akira Kurosawa was purely a byproduct of my appreciation of Ebert’s opinionated prose.
Then, a weird thing happened. I had never been a very confident writer, and in those days before WordPress or even GeoCities, I didn’t do it very much outside of school. And yet, I started to write movie reviews. Not to develop an identity as a movie critic, but because, simply, I wanted to be Roger Ebert. In Microsoft Word, I would adjust the font size and column width to match that of the Video Companion exactly, and I would give myself his word counts as I wrote about As Good As it Gets, Armageddon, or whatever else I watched at our local mall as a 15-year-old without a driver’s license.
Somehow, I mustered the courage to go from these suburban illusions of grandeur to writing movie reviews for our high school newspaper. If an earlier generation produced Kaelites, I was an Ebert-ite from lede to kicker. I took a journalism class. Learning about libel, the fourth estate, and citizenship was purely a byproduct of my desire to be Roger Ebert. Another byproduct: I became more confident with my words. I became the entertainment editor of the school paper. I won national awards for high school film criticism. I wrote a college application essay about my love for Pulp Fiction.
I even got into a few colleges with that essay, in many ways inspired by Roger Ebert’s piece “Secrets of Pulp Fiction,” anthologized in that 1996 video companion. On campus, while others were storming rush week, I was knocking at the door of the college newspaper, looking to be the weekly movie reviewer. I got the gig and caught the press screening and junket bug. Every week, I’d churn out reviews of the latest films by everyone from Chris Rock to Claire Denis.
Roger Ebert was still a must-read, but so were J. Hoberman, A.O. Scott, and my favorite of all, Jonathan Rosenbaum. With college came a rejection of everything that came before. Ebert, like a childhood stuffed animal, was just so provincial. He never wrote about Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang. Did he even know who Béla Tarr or Tsai Ming-liang was? The pages of the Village Voice and Film Comment sure did, and there I found erudite (i.e. New York) ways of talking film.
My interest in Asian cinema arose out of Rosenbaum’s glowing reviews of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke, directors who received nary a mention in the pages of theChicago Sun-Times. I also developed my own, admittedly Rosenbaumian, critical perspective, often against Ebert’s megaplex populism.
In August 2002, Roger Ebert wrote a negative review of Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times, a film I adored and also reviewed. He thought the tender comedy about grown men who trick a blind girl into becoming a masseuse was downright creepy. At the end of his review, Ebert wrote:
[If] I found it creepy beyond all reason, that is no doubt because I have been hopelessly corrupted by the decadent society I inhabit. Or … are there moviegoers in China who also find Happy Times odd in the extreme? I searched the Chinese Movie Database and the sites of the People’s Daily, the South China Morning Post and English-language papers from Shanghai and Beijing, without finding any mention of the film at all. The Web is worldwide and perhaps I will hear from a Chinese reader or two.
For the first time, I wrote to Roger Ebert. I don’t have my original email to him, but that’s no problem, because three weeks later I found that Ebert had quoted my email, practically in its entirety.
Brian Hu of Berkeley, CA wrote me: “I watched the film with another Chinese-American and we both found it uproariously funny. In fact, I can’t think of another film this year that has made me laugh as much. At first I thought, finally, a major director has made a universally simple, humorous, and meaningful film that all Americans can easily enjoy and learn from. But reading your review, I’d reconsider it.
“Americans simply are not aware of Chinese comedic traditions. We may know Hong Kong cinema for its wild action movies, but we don’t realize that a good fraction of Cantonese language films are comedies, just as a good part of Hollywood films are comedies. Sadly, the truth is, violence translates well; comedy does not. Chinese comedy is often quite sadistic. Think of those Asian game shows that are parodied on American TV, where contestants do crazy things like endure freezing weather in their underwear while a laugh track of Japanese junior high students giggling plays in the background. Americans may find it cruel, but many Chinese find it hilarious.
“That’s not to say Chinese people are sadistic. They just find some things that we find ‘cruel and depraved’ to be funny. On the other hand, I have not yet met one Taiwanese or mainland Chinese who enjoyed Pulp Fiction or Fargo like we do here in America. Chinese audiences find films like Happy Times charming and affectionate, because although it’s cruel, it’s cruel on a simple, harmless level, something you certainly can’t say about Tarantino’s comedies. It’s like Harpo Marx versus Neil LaBute.”
Roger Ebert, the critic whose language I had once mimicked, and whose opinions I had now rejected, was writing through my own words. The impact of that, to a college junior still in search of his own voice and critical purpose, is immeasurable. I never wrote to Rosenbaum, Hoberman, or Scott. That is because they never asked me for my opinion. Roger Ebert asked for the thoughts of a Chinese reader or two. His response, in turn, showed me that criticism is above all an act of community.
In college, I discovered that I loved writing about movies and that others might even enjoy reading my reviews. Those years were also the beginning of the death of the alternative weekly, so résumés later, I resigned to the reality that I would never be a paid film critic. I went to graduate school in film studies, where I read Noel Burch and Siegfried Kracauer while churning out seminar papers. My itch to review persisted though, and I found company and kinship with the burgeoning online magazine Asia Pacific Arts, which was published at UCLA where I was enrolled. In many ways, movie reviewing kept me sane during grad school, especially as my critical skills and writing habits were being stretched in wacky new directions.
Many, many years later, with diploma and dissertation finally in hand, I had the good fortune of landing a job as the Artistic Director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Having now left the ivory tower, I found myself having to adapt my writing style once again. How do I make my program notes and introductions relevant and meaningful to an everyday, non-academic audience? It was Roger Ebert, now the master of Twitter and the blogosphere, who showed the way. Except this time I didn’t read Ebert to ape his language or form. I turned to Ebert to remind me how to write from the heart and with generosity. A film festival is, after all, part of a community.
As we’re reminded at every “death of criticism” juncture, there is a multitude of critical voices online today. Everyone is just a blog post away from being a critic – and possibly an excellent one at that. But with the critical masses pouring through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, Roger Ebert’s site is one of the few I have bookmarked in my browser, where it’s been since I was on Netscape. I look forward to keeping it there. This fire will never go out.