Roger Ebert Talks Movingly About Losing and Re-Finding His Voice (TED 2011)

Film crit­ic Roger Ebert, like Pauline Kael before him, leaves behind a great tor­rent of words. Those of us accus­tomed to seek­ing out his opin­ion can com­fort our­selves on the Inter­net, where his thoughts on the great (and not-so-great) films of the last four decades live in per­pe­tu­ity.

After a rup­tured carotid artery robbed him of the pow­er of speech, words assumed an even greater impor­tance for Ebert. Even though he felt lucky to be alive in an age when most home com­put­ers come equipped with a text-to-speech option, he mourned the loss of inflec­tion, tim­ing, and spon­tane­ity. Cere­Proc, a Scot­tish firm spe­cial­iz­ing in per­son­al­ized com­put­er voic­es, cre­at­ed a cus­tom ver­sion he breezi­ly referred to as Roger Junior or Roger 2.0, a Franken­stein’s mon­ster assem­bled from hours of tele­vi­sion appear­ances. A noble, but flawed attempt. Despite his Mid­west­ern attrac­tion to Apple’s com­put­er­ized British accent, Ebert returned to its Amer­i­can male voice, “Alex”, as the most expres­sive option.

In 2011, the speech­less Ebert gave a TED Talk on the sub­ject. “Alex” was giv­en his moment to shine, but there’s no way the tech­no­log­i­cal mir­a­cle can com­pete with the human spec­ta­cle onstage.

Rather than rely on the rel­a­tive­ly autonomous voice sub­sti­tute, Ebert arranged for his wife, Chaz Ham­mel­smith, and friends Dean Ornish and John Hunter, to read his words from pre­pared scripts.

For­get W.C. Fields’ caveat about per­form­ing with chil­dren and dogs. Ebert stole his own show, shame­less­ly upstag­ing his loved ones with jol­ly pan­tomimed thumbs ups and oth­er antics. When he’s on cam­era, you can’t take your eyes off him…as he clear­ly knew. A 2010 Esquire arti­cle by Chica­go-based the­ater crit­ic, Chris Jones, described how the removal of Ebert’s low­er jaw gave him the aspect of a per­ma­nent smile. The dis­fig­ure­ment was shock­ing, but espe­cial­ly so on one whose face was so famil­iar. It led to fre­quent mis­as­sump­tions that he had been men­tal­ly inca­pac­i­tat­ed as well. Ham­mel­smith’s tears when she gets to this part of her hus­band’s elo­quent TED Talk speak vol­umes as well. His will­ing­ness to place him­self front and cen­ter, where peo­ple who might think it impo­lite to stare could not help but see and hear him as a whole per­son, was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary act.

“With­out intel­li­gence and mem­o­ry, there is no his­to­ry.”  — Roger Ebert, 1942 — 2013

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is a writer in the Big Apple.

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