“OBIT" — 3 stars — Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Jack Kadden, Jeff Roth; not rated; Broadway
There’s a running gag connected to Jeremy Piven’s supporting character in the 2001 romantic comedy “Serendipity": Piven is quick to tell people he writes for the New York Times, but is always ashamed to admit that he only writes for the obituary page.
Director Vanessa Gould’s insightful documentary “Obit” is here to rebut that shame. While the obituaries may carry the macabre duty of announcing the demise of the newsworthy, according to veteran Times obit writer Margalit Fox, they spend about 90 percent of their time celebrating the life of their subjects.
Over the course of 93 minutes, Gould’s documentary interviews various New York Times obit writers, along with some of their associated colleagues, and explores the ins and outs of a fascinating unheralded wing of journalism.
Through a combination of interviews, file footage and anecdotes, “Obit” looks at all the issues you’d expect the writers to encounter, as well as some that you’d never suspect. We learn about the philosophy behind who gets an obituary — namely, the priority of profiling a newsworthy subject over a merely virtuous subject — and we learn how obits, like the piece written for notable solo ocean rower John Fairfax, set the standard for how an obituary could rise above a simple list of facts and dates.
The distinction between pure facts and artistic prose is at the heart of “Obit.” At one point a writer reads a lengthy, description-heavy introduction that leads his great-grandmother’s obituary from an Iowa newspaper printed nearly a century ago, remarking how such flowery prose marked a very different era. Later, Times obit writer Bruce Weber reads a similarly lengthy opening for a piece he is writing to commemorate a man who was key to John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential debate, which takes two full paragraphs to actually introduce the man who died. Weber’s rationale is that his obit is providing a history lesson, and that the headline will tell readers who died.
One of many messages that comes through the documentary is that, while it might be easy to assume an obituary is a fairly straightforward, factual exercise, it can be heavily influenced by its writer (at least at the Times). Choices of wording and content can betray emotions and biases that writers must guard against within themselves as well as from the families of the deceased. We see this through one writer’s interpretation of the bombardier responsible for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, and in another fascinating passage, we actually see Weber called out for a mistake we witnessed him make earlier on in the film.
There’s also a subtext of tension between history and technology, as we spend several scenes in what is lovingly called the New York Times “Morgue.” Jeff Roth is the colorful overlord of this vast room packed with files stuffed with random clippings from dozens of other newspapers, plus the Times itself, and even he has to admit that, in spite of his position, he’s only read a meaningless fraction of the material available.
Other segments explore the difficulty of encapsulating a public life in a few hours if a person dies unexpectedly young, like Michael Jackson, or how the disproportionate emphasis on dead white male subjects reflects a historical emphasis that the Times feels obliged to follow.Comment on this story
While the film is clearly meant to celebrate the unsung writers behind this underappreciated department, Gould interviews so many writers that they often get lost in the shuffle. One gets the sense that there are additional stories behind the writers themselves. But few viewers will come away feeling unsatisfied by “Obit.” Its style may be routine, but any flaws will easily be overshadowed by Gould’s compelling portrait of a dark corner of noteworthy journalism.
“Obit” is not rated, but contains some infrequent profanity (including one use of the F-word), and some sexuality/nudity (file footage of an exotic dancer); running time: 93 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube.