Review: ‘Obit’

Ultimately, ‘Obit’ is about whether a life has meaning and why.

Obituary writer Bruce Weber at work.
Photo by Ben Wolf

(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Vanessa Gould

Summing up a life or a career is not an easy thing. Obituary writers at the New York Times are part of a dying breed of professional journalists who do just that. They’re paid to investigate the pasts of people who may or may not be worthy of inclusion in one of the few great newspapers still in existence. If they make the cut, and the writing about them is memorable, the deceased—whether they created the “slinky” or helped the space programme with one of their tinkerings—will be immortalized in the Times.

Vanessa Gould’s charming and well researched Obit zeroes in on the exemplary crew of journalists who staffed the NYTimes’ “dead zone” a couple of years ago. William McDonald, Bruce Weber, Paul Vitello, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, and Peter Keepnews are accomplished and articulate writers and editors who happily shared their careers—the ups and downs—with Gould. Being New Yorkers, they also have done other things: Keepnews is a stand-up comic, Fox a cellist, Weber a trained baseball umpire and Grimes a culinary expert.

Each of them must enjoy the enigmatic comment made by Marlene Dietrich’s brothel madam Tanya about Orson Welles’ corrupt cop Hank Quinlan, when she sees him dead in the water in the noir classic Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

It matters a lot to writers like Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox and Paul Vitello. To them, writing an obit is a professional challenge, which often become personal. In order to write a proper obit, a journalist has to interview family relatives and friends. They have to get the facts right and figure out a way to distill a biography into a few hundred words.

Obit is really about the writing game. Can you meet a deadline? Is your lead sentence intriguing and accurate? Are you capable of being short, snappy and memorable?

When you make a film that deals with mortality—if only from the distance of people writing about it—the big questions loom as a matter of course. Ultimately, Obit is about whether a life has meaning and why. The funny, practical and very intelligent staff at the Times’s obit department gets to deal with that fundamental concern—the meaning of life—every day.

Their answer is to turn in good copy and advocate for a leading position in the paper for their prose. Obit allows every viewer to ponder the questions, big and small, about life. Vanessa Gould has made a funny, philosophical film, which is well worth seeing. Let’s hope her obit many years from now makes the front page of the NYTimes.

For a second take on Obit, read Pat Mullen’s review.