In profiling the late film critic after a surgery that took his speech, Chris Jones shows that Ebert’s voice as a writer was stronger than most spoken ones.

[[{“fid”:”4055″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”481″,”width”:”640″,”style”:”width: 400px; height: 301px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: right;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Chris Jones, “The Essential Man,” Esquire, March 2010

By Jonathan Forani

If you read this story online, you will notice that the SEO-friendly headline misses the point entirely: “Roger Ebert Cancer Battle,” it reads atop the web browser. Though Ebert’s condition gave Canadian writer Chris Jones and Esquire a greater purpose for a profile, the famed critic’s cancer fight makes up little of Jones’s finely tuned profile of Ebert’s life.

The real headline doesn’t get to the heart of the story, either. “The Essential Man”—a tie-in with that month’s essentials-themed issue—is a nice sentiment, that Ebert is the essential Esquire man, the definition of manhood. But machismo isn’t his story. Ebert is a man who’s lost so much—part of his jaw and his ability to speak—but what means more is what he’s managed to keep despite it all.

To write a feature-length piece about a man with no voice would seem a difficult task. A subject’s voice is as revealing of his character as his clothing and what decorates his walls. In some ways, Jones was faced with a “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”-type conundrum: how to paint a picture of a man without access to the man?

Of course, Jones is able to watch movies with Ebert and stroll around ponds with him. But without his voice, he’s still missing something. Similar to Gay Talese’s seminal work, that’s what becomes the story: Ebert’s lost voice. 

First, Jones describes the voice of “Alex,” text-to-speech software designed to vocalize Ebert’s words. Alex began as a British voice, until the accent made understanding Ebert more difficult. Now he has a robot voice more familiar to us from television and film, though at first Jones describes it as though it’s not coming from Ebert at all. But soon Jones attributes the voice to its writer, and the voice becomes Ebert. He eventually realizes that Ebert’s voice as a writer is stronger than most real voices. Through the page or screen, it’s still Ebert. “Out there, his voice is still his voice—not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.

Once Jones has established this, he no longer uses “says the voice” when Ebert is quoted. 

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Besides, Ebert has always “lived his life through microphones,” Jones notes, mainly as the co-host of the film program Siskel & Ebert. This is perhaps not entirely abstract for Ebert, Jones suggests, though writing is his true passion. Instead of microphones, “his new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch,” he writes, but you wonder if that’s really far off from the way Ebert lived before the day his voice went. That’s where Ebert always thrived. Jones knows this and uses long excerpts from the man’s online journals. They stand in for his voice where his current one could not in this story. And it works: Ebert’s prose is full of life.

Few of Jones’s scenes feature dialogue, and that’s precisely the point. Even without spoken words to convey, Jones uses other aspects of Ebert to show what the man feels. Literary journalism is about more than what people say, and Jones includes plenty of details about Ebert’s behaviour so we can see a full image of the man. His eyes in particular offer some of the most illuminating scenes. He’s found a new way to laugh: closing his eyes and slapping his knees. He rolls his eyes at a woman who writes him a note when he has fully capable ears. Tears well up with memories of his co-host and friend Gene Siskel. In that moment his eyes overwhelm the permanent smile his surgery had left him with, but in others, the smile wins. 

Though he was a successful film critic, a near celebrity in his own right, Ebert’s riches don’t make it into the story much. Only once is his prestige and wealth addressed explicitly: a dinner at a private club that is “all stone arches and stained glass” and “filled mostly with people with white hair.” Ebert and his wife, Chaz, get seated in the middle of the room, a detail that highlights their status as prized guests at the elite restaurant. But Jones displays Ebert’s kindness an instant later, when he responds to someone who apologizes for eating in front of him: “No, no,” he writes. “You’re eating for me.”

Writing about an esteemed man in the twilight of his career, Jones knows how to show respect. He does so by leaving out most of the details that would make this story really about “Roger Ebert’s Cancer Battle.” Instead, he writes about what Ebert has lost, cancer or no: half his identity in his friend Siskel’s death, his laugh, his voice. More poignantly, it’s about what he hasn’t lost: the honesty, the deep appreciation for life and movies. 

There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.

 

[[{“fid”:”3848″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:”500″,”width”:”500″,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 100px; margin-left: 10px; margin-right: 10px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Jonathan Forani graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Ryerson University in 2014.

Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca.

Photo by Scott Beale, via Flickr.