How do you condense an entire life down to 500 words? Who do you decide to write an obituary for in advance, assuming their death might come soon? How do you maintain any level of happiness when dealing with death all day long? These are the questions (along with plenty of others) that director Vanessa Gould poses to the obituary staff writers at the New York Times and the result is a moving and fascinating new documentary.
Though some Presidential figures might claim that it’s failing, the New York Times remains a powerful and vital news source with a reach and impact that are incomparable. It’s also one of the few newspapers left with a full-time staff dedicated to obituaries, a bizarre and morbid but incredibly important service. Gould (‘Between the Folds’) decided to spend some time pointing her cameras at the people who spend their lives writing stories about those who have recently passed, ranging from celebrities and politicians to local folks of import. What sounds like perhaps a too-specific focus leads to a fascinating, funny, inspiring and moving portrait of a strange little corner of the news industry dedicated to mortality.
The movie starts soft, as you’d expect, by posing questions to the various editors and writers of the Times’ obituary section about how they stumbled into their jobs and how they’re perceived. There’s a sense that, for many years people settled into the Obit desk after aging out of more stressful news gigs and were shunned at parties for dedicating their lives to something so dark and bizarre. That’s changed now, of course. In the internet age, obituaries are a competitive business with readers anxious to read the first printed odes to deceased celebrities and particularly anxious to see how the Times covers an important life. It’s an odd shift that came over time. It’s not that these people are rock stars at the paper, but they at least have work considered important within and outside the organization to get a little of that elusive respect.
From there, Gould slowly loses herself down the rabbit hole of this strange profession, and it’s a surprisingly lively and robust place to point a camera. Far from being morose, the journalists she interviews (Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Jack Kadden, Peter Keepnews, Douglas Martin, William McDonald, Dolores Morrison, Jon Pareles and Jeff Roth) are quite an amusing bunch filled with fun anecdotes and observations. One tells a strange tale about how, when daredevil test pilot Elinor Smith died at 98, they found that an advanced obituary was written about her in 1931 assuming that she wouldn’t make it past 30. There are discussions about how and when an obituary should be written about someone in advance – such as a stressful account of the panic that ensued when, after a day spent pulling together Farrah Fawcett’s obituary, Michael Jackson suddenly passed. More philosophical musings discuss how writing an obituary is a way to mark history, or how they hope their own obituaries will read. It’s kind of amazing just what comes out of the mouths of these intriguing people.
In a way, that all makes sense. These are people who consider mortality for a living. There’s no way that couldn’t affect your mind on some level. They seem to have a healthy mix of gallows humor and a dedicated sense of responsibility to their cause. It’s very noble, odd and sweet – as are all those who work in the section.
Given the potentially claustrophobic and limited visual palette of her subject, Gould alternates between fly-on-the-wall footage, talking heads, and lively photo/video montages to spice things up visually. It flows by at a gently energetic clip with surprising wit and style. ‘Obit’ might not sound like the stuff great documentaries are made of, but Gould has managed to mine her subject matter for much more than could reasonably be assumed she might find. It’s a beautiful little pocket of humanity worthy of attention. More often than not, that’s where the best documentaries come from. It’s hard to believe that ‘Obit’ won’t end up being one of the best documentaries of the year.