How do you encompass a life in 500 words? How do you decide whose life is newsworthy and whose is not? These aren’t questions that most of us will ever need to concern ourselves with, but they are the daily tribulations of the obituary department at the New York Times, and the subject of the new documentary Obit.
Obituaries have an aura of morbidity that can make them a slightly gauche topic for dinner conversations. Yet, as one of the obit writers puts it, only one or two sentences in an obituary concerns death, the rest of it is about life. Vanessa Gould’s second documentary continues her trend of exposing the fascinating intricacies of ordinary topics (her first film Between the Folds was about origami). Obit takes a look at what a day in the life of an obituary writer at the New York Times is like. It’s a film that begs us to look a little deeper into an overlooked form of journalism, both at its physical practices and its place in our culture.
Gould does an admirable job exposing the difficulties inherent to journalism concerning events from half a century ago. We see Bruce Webber struggle to write an obituary for the man who oversaw Kennedy’s television appearances, chiefly the debate that won him the election. We see William McDonald, the obituaries editor, discuss fighting for obituaries prominence in the paper. Perhaps most fascinating, we see into New York Times morgue, where the Times stores back copies and clippings in a massive collection overseen by the wry and particular Jeff Roth. As Webber puts it, obit writers don’t have sources the way conventional reporters do. Everyday they walk in and see who died whose worth writing about.
There’s a necessary frankness to Obit that eschews sentimentality. It’s more a film about journalism than it is about the philosophies of death. The further Gould draws back the curtain, the more unexpected problems and practices are revealed. Where do you get the photographs of these people? How do you turn around a massive story when someone like Michael Jackson dies suddenly? Jeff Roth discusses the fascinatingly morbid practice of writing obituaries ahead of time for important figures that seem close to death. Obit does take a broader look at how our culture looks to the past, and how our views on death have evolved with the obituary, but it does so with one foot on the ground.
The film is primarily a compilation of on-the-job recordings, talking head pieces, and archival footage. When these sources are working in concert, the film feels effortless fluid, tied together with strong editing by Kristin Bye. There’s nothing innovative about the film’s form, but it works for the most part. The film slows at times but it never sags, and it has the decency to give us a conclusion that doesn’t require text to let us know the film is ending.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Obit shines a light at an often-overlooked form of journalism and illuminates the work that goes into capturing a legacy in ink. It isn’t a groundbreaking film and it likely won’t alter your perception on death or journalism, but its unlikely you’ll look at the obits quite the same way again.