An Open Letter To Roger Ebert

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I'm writing regarding your recent post "Video games can never be art". This of course is ground you have touched upon before. Your site is currently being inundated with comments from those eager to defend video games as art.

I am not interested in defending video games as an art form. Ironic, as I make my living by writing about video games. But the reason I don't feel inclined to join in that discussion as it's like a 26-year-old trying to convince his parents that he's a grown-up.

Rather, I wanted to discuss something else entirely. Before I start, I just wanted to tell you I am a great admirer of your film criticism and you'd probably be somewhere behind Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris in critics I admire most. We might agree on some films (say, Godfather 2), but disagree on other films (like Blue Velvet), but that's not actually why I admire you.

Unlike many critics who simply review, you have actually written a movie. A great movie. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (embedded link NSFW) is hands down one of the best films of the 1970s. But is it art? Can art be a film that features rocker girls with enormous breasts? What if someone simply saw the above still from the film, they'd probably be inclined to judge the film on that and not on it's top flight script, score (clip NSFW), performances and sharp social commentary.

An Open Letter To Roger Ebert

And Russ Meyer was surely one of the best American filmmakers of the last century. And perhaps more than any other American director of the last century did he understand how to edit a motion picture. This is not simple flattery. This is what I honestly believe.

From the time I was 17 to when I was 21, I spent every summer in Los Angeles, working at Rolling Thunder Pictures at the Miramax offices on Beverly Blvd. in Los Angeles. The late 1990s were an exciting time in the movie business, and it was exciting to be doing stuff at a company headed up by Quentin Tarantino. I helped on a New York Times bestseller on blaxploitation films, hung out on the set of Jackie Brown, met a buncha movie stars and directors and watched a lot of films.

I also played a lot of Oddworld. This isn't the part of the article in which I try to convince you that Oddworld is art. I'm simply saying that I played a great deal of that game.

I'm sure you remember Rolling Thunder Pictures. I believe you reviewed Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, which RTP distributed, as well as Beat Takeshi's Sonatine and Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. RTP no longer exists (then again, where is Miramax?), but one of the things that really stuck with me from my tenure there was the idea that one should not simply label something as art and dismiss something entirely. The other thing that was impressed onto me was the need to watch a ton of films in order to have an educated opinion on them. This thinking has permeated onto how I view music, books and, yes, video games.

Tarantino once held a screening of Detroit 9000, which RTP released. Peter Bogdanovich was there and after the screening, Bogdanovich was going on about how great he thought the film was. And my then boss and Tarantino were asking Bogdanovich if he had ever seen a blaxploitation film. He hadn't — not even Shaft. He'd missed an entire period of American film. This is surprising considering his mastery of American film. Does that mean that Detroit 9000 is a great film? Is it art? Is it as good as, I dunno, the French Connection? Who's to say.

Obviously, you are a film critic, so you are paid to have an opinion on the matter. And since you have an opinion on the matter and are able to convey it in an engaging way, people read what you say.

During the release of The Beyond, I remember Bob Murawski, who recently won an Oscar for editing The Hurt Locker, told me that he thought Lucio Fulci was one of the greatest filmmakers Italy has ever produced. He didn't mean horror filmmaker, but filmmaker. End point. But are Fulci's films art? I'm not sure Bob would even be interested in debating something like this and would instead write off such talk as "moronic". He loves those films dearly and they have impacted him and his work. And he has an Oscar to show for it. Surely his opinion matters. And it does.

An Open Letter To Roger Ebert

Some might look at Meyer's films and write them off as simply sexploitation and be unwilling to look deeper and to think and be engaged — ditto for Fulci's work or 1970's exploitation films. Critics might do this. Movie fanatics do this as well. But what both have in common is a love for the cinema. They are arguing about something they feel passionately about. The debate has moved past "Is film art?" and has now settled on "Is this film art?" Both of which end up being exercises in frivolity because art, like food, is a matter of taste.

But when someone who has only seen a handful of films says something like, "What's so great about Werner Herzog movies?" or "Isn't Yasujiro Ozu a boring director?", those who know film write off such questions as mindless prattle. There is a reason why you are a film critic, Mr. Ebert. You know film. You know film and appreciate it deeply. You understand what makes a good film. You have written countless articles and books on film. You have even written a great film. But one thing must be kept in mind at all times: You are not a video game critic.

Thank you for your time! I eagerly await your next movie review.

Yours with a handshake in thought,
Brian Ashcraft.