Obit is a Life-Affirming Documentary (Really!)

Obit (2016)
Directed by Vanessa Gould
Kino Lorber, 93 minutes, Not rated.

Telling readers that an underappreciated documentary about New York Times obituary writers is so uplifting that they should see it as soon as possible is an invitation to instant skepticism. Isn’t death the ultimate bummer? Who would want to delve into such a morbid subject?

Before you yield to your skepticism, consider an observation made by one of the Times’ obituary writers: There are few things more full of life than an obituary. If you reflect, that’s true. A typical obituary has passing mentions of funeral services and the date and time of death, but most of it is devoted to what the person did while alive. A good obit is revelatory and filled with action and vitality. Former Times obits editor Alden Whitman (1913-90) pioneered this style of obituary, which should never be confused with boilerplate funeral home releases. Great obits require great writers, the sort who can sum up a person’s life in an engaging manner in roughly 500 words. The Times has numerous such scribblers. Its current chief is Biff Grimes, who is an accomplished food writer, and the staff includes polished wordsmiths the likes of Jack Kadden, Margalit Fox, William McDonald, Bruce Weber, and Peter Keepnews. (Is Keepnews a perfect name for a journalist or what?)

We are taken inside the Times to see how the process works. Like any other news story, it begins with an editorial meeting in which decisions are made about how many words to give the famous and near famous, and whether or not an obit should be written at all about intriguing but not-famous individuals. Does Manson Whitlock, the last person in New York to repair typewriters, warrant an obit? (Yes, he did.) How about William P. Wilson, the media consultant that convinced John Kennedy to wear makeup before his 1960 TV debate against Nixon. (Yes again.) Or Dick Rich, an advertising writer who wrote iconic catch phrases for Alka-Seltzer and Benson & Hedges cigarettes? (Yes a third time!) The toughest obits to write occur when someone like Michael Jackson dies decades before the subject is expected to do so. Such a passing involves quick scrambling and a beat-the-clock deadline as intense as the proverbial late-breaking news story.

Perhaps you are perplexed by my remark about death before expected. You may have heard that lots of papers have on-file obituaries for famous people. That’s true in the case of the Times and, as it turns out, they have quite a few for the near famous as well–if they can find them. That’s the job of Jeff Roth, the keeper of the “morgue,” a messy repository of files that predate digitization stuffed into (or on top of) file drawers. Why not digitize them? No one has the time for that! Roth is intriguing in his own right. He’s a cross between the droll humor of Bill Murray, the abrasiveness of Jimmy Breslin, and the hard-broiled approach of a detective writer such as Mickey Spillane. He pulled out one file of an aviatrix that was written 80 years before she finally died. Obviously a bit of updating was needed!

It is also instructive to see people like Fox, Weber, or Paul Vitello at work. Journalists often have a reputation for detached cynicism, but even though deadline-driven obit writers have the unenviable task of fact checking with survivors by phone, Times personnel does so with respect. This is particularly true of Vitello, who is also a Times religion columnist.

Obit is fascinating on many levels. Director Vanessa Gould assembled a film about death that is fast-paced, energizing, and life affirming. It is marred only by the musical choices of Joel Goodman, too much of which is "docu-generic." That’s my term for the enervating neutral music you hear in documentaries with background music you’re not really supposed to hear but do because it’s so cloying. The person who came up with that concept does not deserve an obit.

Rob Weir

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