- Russ Meyer and a young Roger Ebert. Will Perkins / CC-BY
If you haven’t read Chris Jones’ profile of Roger Ebert in Esquire, it’s worth spending a few minutes doing so. Following many treatments and surgeries for thyroid cancer and some brutal complications—think an exploded carotid artery and a disintegrating lower jaw—Ebert, now 67, no longer has the ability to eat or speak. He receives nutrients through a tube connected to his stomach and he has difficulty sitting for long, although his condition is stable. Several attempts to reconstruct his jaw, using flesh and bone culled from other parts of his body, have failed.
Jones does a fine job of chronicling much of Ebert’s career, his deep, abiding, and sometimes tempestuous relationship with the late Gene Siskel, the brutal medical procedures, and his wonderfully supportive wife, Chaz (who’s also VP of the Ebert Company). But what I found most extraordinary about the piece were the descriptions of how Ebert now communicates: through post-its, notebooks, an ad-hoc sign language, film reviews, text-to-speech programs, Twitter, and an online journal/blog hosted by the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert’s longtime employer. Made voiceless and infirm, Roger Ebert appears more prolific than ever, writing endlessly about his life, his politics, his passions, and more on his journal and contributing as many as six pieces on a given day to the Sun-Times. His Twitter feed, strangely enough, could be seen as a reflection of the man: in his posts, which appear frequently and deep into the night, he reveals himself as omnivorous towards art and culture, unflaggingly energetic, full of wit, and vociferously liberal. His love of film is also undiminished (Jones’ pieces opens with a description of Ebert seeing his 281st film in the last 10 months).
Clearly Roger Ebert’s ability to communicate in these diverse modes—though nearly all, notably, rely on the written word—would be far less only a decade ago. The internet has become his oasis and an equalizer, placing him on level ground with the thousands of fans, friends, colleagues, and strangers with whom he communicates. He has leveraged technology to express himself nearly to the point of stream-of-consciousness, assembling a shifting collage of opinion and conversation. (Again, his Twitter page could be a case study for the site’s potential utility, changing the minds of once-firm skeptics like me.) He also has benefitted from his relative wealth, which affords him great medical care and a full-time nurse. Similarly, the many years he spent on TV have borne unexpected fruit, as a Scottish company is now using the immense digital archive of his recorded voice to create a customized text-to-speech program, one that will sound much like Ebert’s real voice.
It’s interesting to note that Ebert doesn’t appear to be trying to recreate his old, “able” self. He’s not grasping after a simulacrum of who he was. His doctors and wife would like to try another jaw-reconstruction procedure, but he refuses. The text-to-speech program will sound something like him, but of course it will not be his voice—more like an approximation, a familiar echo. He hasn’t agreed to requests to write an autobiography because his journal already contains tens of thousands of words reflecting his life, his experiences and beliefs, and it will continue to expand, a protean record of his past and, he tells Jones, a present that is rather happy. There’s something unavoidably post-modern about all of this, knowing that Ebert’s powers of communication have been challenged, scattered, refracted through a dozen intermittently overlapping and imperfect mediums, and that we, his readers, are able to watch much of it play out in an essentially communal space. But that doesn’t make his experience any less human. Instead, with its memoiristic reveals, public striving, reckoning with the body’s flawed biology, and the hopeful promise of elevating personal expression through technology, Ebert’s story is emblematic of our time.
You can read Roger Ebert’s response to Chris Jones’ profile here. To hear from another famous writer struggling with mortality, I suggest following the recent coverage of Terry Pratchett, including this piece.