An Open Letter To Roger Ebert

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 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 its top flight script, score and performances.

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 โ€” 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 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.

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 โ€” 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 film review.

Yours with a handshake in thought,

Brian Ashcraft.


  • Jesus, I could not add anything more constructive to this open letter if I tried.

    All that shot through my head when I read those last 2 paragraphs was “this was an amazing response” and it really, really was.

  • This is pretty much what I thought when I read Ebert’s comments before. He talked about games in it, and how he’d been told a small amount of them, but immediately dismissed them without even looking into them further.
    Flower, in particular. He asked what the aim of the game was. He asked if you control the flower. He did not even bother to find this information himself, let alone experience the game.

    Ebert’s criticisms of video games not being art is exactly as Brian stated above:
    “What if someone simply saw the above still from the film, theyโ€™d probably be inclined to judge the film on that and not on its top flight script, score and performances.”

  • Who cares if art critics say videogames aren’t art? Art is old paintings and old statues that were a novelty before we had tv and computers. Art is a dying art, and this is scaring art people, why would you buy a painting when you can mount an lcd panel on your wall and run slideshows of famous paintings. Videogames are far more entertaining than “art” ever will be and art is no longer of any great cultural significance.

    • Not sure if I agree with you here. Art is not dying, it never will. Art is purly interpretive, it is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t matter what some critic thinks, what you think or what I think when you are viewing art for yourself. Art invokes an emotional responce, so depending on your views, your experiances and your likes it will mean different things for each person. Art is not dying, different mediums are simply being added to its already extensive collection.

  • Brian, this has got to be one of the most well thought through and well written responses I’ve read in my life. Though this probably doesn’t account for much considering I’ve got A LOT more living ahead of me, I still think that I shall be holding this response in the highest regards for many years to come.


  • I hope Ebert actually reads this. I do respect the man, but it doesn’t seem like he’s in any position to be voicing his opinion on whether games are art or not.

  • To clarify, I firmly believe that video games could and should be considered art. However…

    It’s not so much a problem with Ashcraft’s argument (although all he is doing is challenging Ebert’s right to make such an assertion and not actually challenging Ebert’s contention…the equivalent of ‘I’m not having this debate with you’), but should it be a concern that Ebert’s original point is one that we have heard before and that has been echoed elsewhere?

    I’m honestly not sure? Although I don’t think the best way to present the argument ‘For’ is by discrediting the credentials of the opposition (And to preempt, I realise that this is likely not Ashcraft’s only argument, but it is the only one presented for discussion here).

    What is the best argument?

  • What a bunch of pompous self aggrandising crap. Articles like this make you realise how young this industry is and how young the people writing about it are. Not necessarily how young they are physically but mentally.

    I’m not paid to write for a living nor am I paid for my reasoning abilities and rhetoric. I’m not a influential gaming journalist. I am however high school educated and having achieved that milestone I can confidently say that article was poorly written and poorly constructed. I stand here embarrassed by the people that represent me in the gaming press.

    The article convinced me of nothing more than Ashcraft’s misunderstanding of the ontology of art. That somehow a summer job in the film industry equates to neither a naive self aware appreciation of film nor the ability to criticise it at any level. And that Ebert though misguided, is intelligent and can construct and good argument.

    I’m sure there are people in the games industry that can continue the debate, and I look forward the spectacle, but a major site like Kotaku presenting its self like this is disappointing.

    Its not like Kotaku doesn’t employ talented writers–the-costs-of-my-gaming-addiction and

  • I don’t care if games are art. Does that matter? Maybe b/c I’m still fighting for games to be viewed as appropriate for adults in my country. yeah its probably that. I can’t really argue that games are art whilst our government says ‘games are just for kids’.

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