If you haven’t read it yet, Esquire’s recent feature of film critic Roger Ebert written by journalist Chris Jones* is just beautiful. I guess it’s a little sad, but it’s also well written, funny, and shows just how powerful a well-done journalistic profile can be. I can only wish to write something this lovely someday.
I don’t follow film much, so it somehow slipped my radar that for about the last seven years Ebert has been battling with cancer. At this point, his lower jaw has been removed and he can no longer eat, drink, or speak. However, the profile shows that what seems devastating has helped Ebert get back to some of his early passions, namely writing, and uses that to talk about the power that words can have:
His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it’s like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It’s not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn’t exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.
Journalistically, there’s a few stellar things about this feature. First, the level of detail. I’m not sure how long the author was with Ebert, but he’s done a good job pulling moments from those times that give a sense of Ebert an how he’s coping. This one, about Ebert’s long-time friend Gene Siskel, is perfect:
All these years later, the top half of Ebert’s face still registers sadness when Siskel’s name comes up. His eyes well up behind his glasses, and for the first time, they overwhelm his smile. He begins to type into his computer, slowly, deliberately. He presses the button and the speakers light up. “I’ve never said this before,” the voice says, “but we were born to be Siskel and Ebert.” He thinks for a moment before he begins typing again. There’s a long pause before he hits the button. “I just miss the guy so much,” the voice says. Ebert presses the button again. “I just miss the guy so much.”
It’s one thing to get a subject to open up like that, but it’s an entirely different thing to write the moment in a way that captures what happened and what the thing that happened means.
The profile also picks a perfect tone — admiring without fawning, serious but not sad, and optimistic without being falsely cheerful. I admire the work it must have taken to achieve all those things. Ebert responded to the article on his blog, which is another side of the story you should read. Reading Ebert on himself confirmed to me that the tone and spirit that Jones conveyed were correct. Ebert’s response is gracious and thoughtful and added to my impressions of the piece.
If you haven’t read the profile, you should. And cheers to the author, Chris Jones, for a lovely piece, and Roger Ebert for having the courage to share this experience with his fans and other readers.
*Originally I credited the author’s name as Chris Johnson, not Chris Jones. My apologies!