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“Who is Arthur Chu?” is a difficult question to answer. Not just in the sense of “Who is he, really?” but because Chu’s status as a public figure is difficult to contextualize unless you’ve spent frankly too much time on the internet. He first came to national attention on Jeopardy!, leveraging an 11-game winning streak into a career as a writer and pundit. But he’s probably best-known these days for logging onto Twitter and saying things like this:
This post perfectly encapsulates Chu’s online presence: pompous woke posturing mixed with a baffling non-sequitur. Why was he watching gay porn if it makes him uncomfortable? How does that relate to being a woman online? Why did he put this on the internet, with his whole legal name on it and everything?
The documentary Who is Arthur Chu?, recently released on various VOD platforms, leans toward a fairly routine character study rather than seek to answer such questions. In interviews, Arthur gives accounts of his childhood, his thorny relationship with his father, the pressures of being the first-born child of immigrants, and his introduction to identity politics. This is interesting material, but it feels like sitting in on a particularly unproductive therapy session. Arthur has little self-awareness, and despite talking at length, he never reaches any real insight.
The film is much more successful at finding dark humor in the contrast between the way Arthur sees himself and the way he actually behaves, particularly in his relationship with his wife Eliza. Almost every time she appears on screen, she’s hard at work ironing his shirts, cooking his dinner, or supporting his narcissistic bid for fame as a professional feminist, all while he lies around the house giving her orders. The people closest to him seem to live in a perpetual wince. His mother worries that Eliza will leave him. After a public speaking gig goes badly, his father gently suggests that he should keep his day job. When his younger brother and sister sit together for an interview, they struggle to find anything positive to say about him. At times the film crosses the line between criticism and cruelty. An early sequence which follows Arthur as he walks onto the Jeopardy! soundstage is shot in slow motion, like a music video, and cruelly emphasizes his bumbling, awkward physicality. It’s a cheap joke, and completely unnecessary; making Arthur look ridiculous just isn’t that hard.
The most damning moment of the film takes place at an anime convention, where Arthur is participating in a panel about Gamergate. Although the film doesn’t fully contextualize the movement and its reactionary roots, the scene captures a sense of dread. The convention room is crowded, and the atmosphere is tense. One of the other panelists, a woman whom the film does not identify, confesses in a wavering voice that she’s scared to even be present. Arthur, the professional feminist ally, is completely unmoved by this. He does not offer her any encouragement or sympathy — she’s sitting right beside him, but it’s as though he doesn’t hear her. Without acknowledging her vulnerability in any way, he takes the microphone back from her and opens up the floor to debate.
The comedy of Arthur Chu is that he thought he could understand what being a woman is like by visiting a gay porn site. The tragedy is that he did not think to simply listen to a woman — for example, his wife. Eliza is the real hero of the film. An unsuccessful writer living with a disability she can’t treat, she meets her disappointments with humor and managed expectations. Arthur’s newfound quasi-success at first fills her with hope. “This year it’s the year of Arthur Chu,” she confides to camera, “maybe three years from now it’ll be the year of Eliza Blair.” But Arthur continues to take her for granted, and as the film progresses, their relationship grows strained. Eliza begins building an outdoor enclosure for one of their cats “so she’ll finally have the space she needs,” ostensibly talking about the animal. At the end of the film, a title card announces that the two have separated. Chu is obviously not the hero he imagines himself to be, though he’s also not enough of a villain to make Who is Arthur Chu?‘s feature-length takedown fully satisfying. But it’s still a chilling cautionary tale about the dangers of getting too online.