Review: ‘Obit’

Remarkable doc goes inside the pages of the New York Times

8 mins read

(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Vanessa Gould


“I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life,” reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) famously says at the end of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. While it’s true that a “Rosebud” can’t adequately capture any person’s life, Mr. Thompson might have had better luck summarising Charles Foster Kane had he been an obit writer. Obituaries, which the new documentary Obit positions as an unsung corner of journalism, strive to convey the essence of a person’s life in a few hundred words. The subject of the article might be dead, but, as with Welles’s film, one can only begin to understand a person by examining the events of his or her life. This remarkable documentary shows wordsmiths in action as they let every rosebud blossom into a fond remembrance.

Director Vanessa Gould goes inside the offices of the New York Times to show the obit writers in action. Obit observes a handful of reporters as they research a life and condense it into a few columns. The work that Gould captures makes Obit one of the stronger documentaries on both journalism and the writing process as the film watches them crunch to the deadline, sweating over details, facts, and word counts while trying to do justice to a life and tell a good story.

The writers and editors—William McDonald, Margalit Fox, Bruce Weber, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, and Paul Vitello—are a lively bunch. The passion with which they describe their work breaks down misconceptions one might have that covering the obit beat is a morbid trade—and they share the experience being a buzzkill whenever someone asks what they do for work—but the current that runs throughout the film is the writers’ efforts to emphasise life. Death is simply an obligatory detail.

Obit shows with surprising verve how the writers at the Times bring unique approaches to the art of the death notice. The process is often one of intensive research and thorough interviewing. The sequences with Bruce Weber are particularly enlightening and fascinating as he interviews the widow of William P. Wilson, who served as aide to John F. Kennedy in the landmark televised debates that help him win the White House. As Weber interviews Wilson’s wife, Melody Miller, and gleans the necessary facts to give a faithful impression of the late man, Obit almost conjures a sense of reincarnation. By writing the article and telling the story of a seemingly unknown and unsung American, Weber brings someone to life in just a few paragraphs. There really is an art to capturing someone so delicately, particularly as the film shows with the writer’s presentation of the draft, which he assures Gould that his editor will eviscerate because it doesn’t even mention Wilson until the fifth paragraph. (Notably, the work makes the cut.)

Obit has a great sense of humour, too, as it deals with death. One chapter of the film confronts the urban legend of obituaries stockpiled on reserve in case a major figure croaks, like a politician or aging celebrity after his or her career has peaked. These scenes feature New York Times clerk Jeff Roth who works “the morgue” where clippings, photos, and essential facts sit in a massive archive. Lives kept on file. Roth has a great sense of humour about the work as he helps Gould navigate the seemingly unwieldy piles of cabinets and files.

Where the film gets really interesting, though, is when Gould offers a peek behind the curtain of editorial board politics as the higher-ups at the Times weigh the newsworthiness of a life. Obit takes care to say that “newsworthy” is not akin to a person’s worth; it’s merely the practical elements of sales, readership, and front page merit that determine which stiffs at the morgue deserve top billing. The doc shows ample politicking as editors debate if an obit deserves a full paragraph above the fold or a little blurb at the bottom of the front page, if at all. When Obit introduces the timing of Farrah Fawcett’s death and that of Michael Jackson, the film reveals an obituary writer’s biggest range of work: an expected death versus one that is sudden. The last minute scramble to summarise the legacy of one of pop music’s most influential figures only hours before press time shows the writers in their element—the level of professionalism and inspiration should fuel any aspiring wordsmith in the theatre.

Other sequences tell engaging life stories about people who defied the odds, achieved stardom, or simply registered in the lives others. One fantastic sequence sees Margalit Fox offer a dramatic reading of the obituary of Manson Whitlock, who worked as a typewriter repairman. Fox lets readers know the significance of Whitlock’s work on their daily routines as she likens him to a conductor of ambient noise that pulsed through the nations’ offices. Gould makes riveting use of archival footage and sound editing as typewriter keys clack and machinery chimes while Fox explains Whitlock’s relatively mundane task as that of a virtuoso. (One must also give full praise to film editor Kristin Bye for her dynamic cutting of the sequence.) Obit shows with humanising grandeur how one need not merit celebrity status to be honoured.

Obit captures the work of the writers with the same economy, precision, dark humour, and inspiring spirit that they put into their articles. As Gould flips through the machinery behind every life that makes the obit pages, the documentary draws out the keyword behind each story: “impact.” From a dead president to the King of Pop to the repairperson toiling away on seemingly mundane tasks, Obit conveys how any life, no matter how big or small, has an impact on society if one looks at it with the right perspective. For anyone who feels insecure about leaving a mark on the world, Obit reassures you that you have.

Obit opens Friday, March 31 at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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