Director: Vanessa Gould
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 4/26/17 (limited); 5/19/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 18, 2017
Despite the misperception, an obituary is only 10 percent about death. The other 90 percent of the write-up is about life. That's the argument of one of the obituary writers who's featured in Obit, a strangely insightful and almost accidentally disheartening documentary. That latter quality is because the film is, despite the protests of its subjects, about death. It's just not about death in a way that the people within the film have accepted yet.
The film follows a day on the job in the obituary department of the New York Times. Some of the interviews, obviously, were filmed on the journalists' down time, although it's pretty amusing to see even the most consummate professionals taking any excuse to procrastinate on an imminent deadline.
Asked about how his piece is shaping up, Bruce Webber, who moved to the obituaries from being a theater critic and cultural reporter, stops what he's doing to read the two-paragraph-long—and long paragraphs they are—introduction to his story of the day. After that, he gets into a discussion about how he knows he'll have to fight with the editors about the fact that he hasn't mentioned the name of the deceased in those introductory paragraphs. It's important for background—to what made the man significant in the arena of modern politics. Then, of course, he's going to have to figure out how to include a bit more context before he brings it to the editors. When is that? Well, at the time he started reading his text, his deadline was in 20 minutes.
Maybe if he hadn't stopped for two cups of coffee while writing, he'd have more time. Such thoughts, as any writer knows, are akin to blasphemy. Coffee comes first. Deadlines come later.
Vanessa Gould, the film's director, knows better than ask why he's stalling, and it's not because she's a passive interviewer. She seems to know that this is the ritual—the coffee breaks, the random diversions, the need to bounce ideas and what's on the page off of anyone who's willing to listen (or, for that matter, unwilling to listen, although no writer can tell the difference). The film captures the atmosphere of a daily newspaper, where everyone is on a deadline but no random observer would know that such pressure is on.
These journalists are used to it. They thrive on it. Twenty minutes may not seem like a long time for a writer to make a drastic change to the focus of a piece, but a writer in this environment has been shifting words and paragraphs, altering the entire structure of a story, and figuring out multiple ways to get a reader's attention in those opening sentences over the course of an entire day. That's just what has been happening in the writer's mind.
Gould follows a few writers and a couple of editors, all of whom are thrilled at the prospect of having their job, which seems routine at best and morbid at worst, given this treatment. Some of them are visibly happier than others, such as Margalit Fox, who explains how the craft of writing obituaries has changed in the past decade or so. No longer restrained by the requirements of providing rote biographies, obituary writers have begun to infuse the perceived personalities of their subjects into their work. She cheerfully goes through the obituary of a typewriter repairman, which describes the appeal of the forgotten writing instruments and punctuates it with rhythmic onomatopoeia.
They talk about the craft and the requirements of a daily newspaper. Some of these are joined together, such as the pesky things known as facts and the peskier dilemma of including too many facts. Having too many facts almost always results in a dreaded correction the next day, because it's almost inevitable that someone will misremember some details of a recently deceased family member, friend, or acquaintance.
There are a few scenes of Webber on the phone with the wife of the political strategist whose obituary he has been assigned, and it's impossible not to imagine the woman on the other end of that call. There's a tricky balancing act that he and his colleagues have to perform—getting the necessary information (A confirmation of the death is imperative these days of social media hoaxes) and respecting the grief. He begins the conversation with an attitude that is both warm and professional, but by the end of it, after the new widow has told stories of her husband's life, it's difficult not to think that the conversation has, in some small way, helped her through this event.
Gould's questions are, at times, a bit obvious, such as asking the writers if having this job has made them think about their own mortality (One understands what the filmmaker wants from them, but still, even the writers say it's the one question they're always asked). Another reveals the morbid detail that, yes, newspapers keep advance obituaries on people they suspect will die sooner rather than later (The story of a woman stunt pilot, who died 80 years after the Times wrote up a just-in-case death notice, is encouraging). There's the even more morbid list of people whose obituaries the department has at the ready.
The one they don't have is their own—not as individuals but as a department and, on a larger scale, an industry. The film brings us to the "morgue" of the paper—a vast and deep archive of clippings and photographs, kept just in case the digital archives fail. It seems strange, if fascinating, but Gould is setting us up for the concept of death within the newspaper itself. Read the final notes on the subjects of Obit, and note how many of them now have "former" before their job title.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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