Film Review: Obit.'New York Times' obituary writers eloquently discuss the highs and lows of their job in a film of niche interest that offers fun facts and grand themes.
One would think the parlors of New York’s literati would be full of open-minded liberals receptive to the idea of a writer who makes her living telling the life stories of those who have recently passed—writers, after all, are generally engaged in the business of telling stories about people’s lives. But the obituary writers for The New York Times have learned not to discuss their job at cocktail parties. People “think it’s one step away from an undertaker’s job—with all due respect to undertakers.”
Obit. is determined to correct this misjudgment. The second documentary feature from Vanessa Gould (Between the Folds) examines the interesting and often fast-paced day of a Times obituary writer. The film’s narrative backbone is provided by the writer Bruce Weber, whom we watch toil over an obituary for William P. Wilson—the man responsible for using Max Factor Crème Puff makeup to even out the skin tone of presidential candidate John F. Kennedy before his televised debate with Richard Nixon in 1960—before the six p.m. deadline. While he researches and tries to shorten that lede, we watch interviews with current and former obit writers, as well as archival footage of their past subjects.
The doc’s chief enjoyment is twofold, and lies in the eloquence of the writers interviewed, as well as in the insider-baseball trivia they share. For instance: Not only must every New York Times obituary state that its subject is deceased, it must relate how the writer knows this to be true. The rule was made after someone filed a lovely parting ode to a Russian ballerina who, sadly or otherwise, had not yet passed. The fact that writers often work on “advances,” or advance obituaries, in which they start writing about a luminary before he or she has died, is another humorously macabre insight for those of us unfamiliar with the biz. Advances currently lie in wait like literary reapers for the likes of Stephen Sondheim, Valerie Harper and Jane Fonda.
Anyone who does not make a habit of perusing the obits might be surprised to learn (as the doc endeavors to teach you) how much wit and humor, both light and dark, suffuse the section. Senior writer Margalit Fox is a standout in this regard. A former cellist and previous staff editor at The Times Book Review, Fox elevates the discussion every time she is featured. Listening to her read her “badass” obituary of the seafaring adventure-man John Fairfax, who “settled a dispute with a pistol” at nine years old, among other colorful accomplishments, over black-and-white footage of the man is a treat.
With its subjects angsting over deadlines and sentence construction, Obit. will likely appeal to other writers, in addition to fans of human esotericism. Although the writers insist their job isn’t depressing, death’s constant presence makes them reflective, and the film ends on an appropriately ruminative note. But Obit. is unlikely to sway anyone whose mind does not already tend inward. Its archival footage and photographs make for engaging visuals, but its interest lies primarily in the talk of its interviewees, thereby limiting its audience. You will know before you have sat down—simply by virtue of sitting down—if you are of the choir; if so, this homily is worth a listen.
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