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The Sunday Salon: Esquire’s Profile of Roger Ebert

The Sunday Salon.comAfter a bit of a morbid week on the blog (I reviewed The Great Starvation Experiment and The Poisoner’s Handbook), I wanted to post something a little more cheerful today.

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nicole February 21, 2010, 11:24 am

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention. It’s inspiring but a little sad as well. I had no idea that this was going on with Ebert.

    • Kim February 21, 2010, 4:04 pm

      Nicole: Yeah, I agree, inspiring and a little sad. I didn’t know what was happening before I read it either.

  • Paul February 21, 2010, 1:10 pm

    Very nice post, but the journalist’s name is Chris Jones, not Johnson. Just thought you’d like to know! :)

    • Kim February 21, 2010, 4:04 pm

      Paul: Thanks for pointing that out to me. I appreciate it.

  • Teresa February 21, 2010, 2:04 pm

    That was an amazing piece. Thanks for linking to it. I had heard about it but hadn’t gotten around to reading it. I’ve been a fan of Ebert’s for years and consider him one of the best film critics out there, because he loves movies of all kinds but is also very smart about them. He writes as a fan and as a critic. (I’d love to be able to write about books in the same way.) When I read his film reviews, I usually know right off whether a movie is for me–not because I always agree with his opinions but because he explains his opinions so well.

    • Kim February 21, 2010, 4:06 pm

      Teresa: Thanks for this comment! I’m not a big film person, so I don’t read a lot of movie reviews. But I do think you’re exactly right — a good reviewer writes as a fan and as a critic because you have to love what you’re writing about at some level. Loving what you write about do makes the good ones better and the bad ones even more disappointing.

  • Chelsea February 21, 2010, 3:30 pm

    Thank you so much for linking to such an amazingly written article! i’ve never been one huge into film, but my brother always was and for him Siskel and Ebert were two big names in my house. Reading this made me realize why my brother gave him all that devotion over the years. Thanks for such a great Sunday Salon!

    • Kim February 21, 2010, 4:07 pm

      Chelsea: Thanks for reading. I didn’t know a lot about Siskel and Ebert either, but after reading I went to Ebert’s journal and read a bit — I can certainly see how he’s gotten where he is today. He really is a lovely writer.

  • softdrink February 21, 2010, 7:46 pm

    That’s a great article…as was Ebert’s response on his blog. Like you, I don’t follow film so I had no clue about the cancer or even that he had won a Pulitzer in the past.

    • Kim February 25, 2010, 7:41 pm

      softdrink: I thought his response was classy. It’s scary to open yourself up to a profile, and it’s easy to be critical. He was very gracious about everything which I like.

  • Jenny February 22, 2010, 7:21 pm

    This is very moving – thanks for posting!

  • Andi February 23, 2010, 10:46 am

    Wow, I had no idea about the shape Ebert is in. Thank goodness we still have his writing. I do adore him and his views on film.

  • Care February 23, 2010, 2:39 pm

    Yes, thank you for this. I’m glad to know of it and will click over to read more thoroughly.