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


Woman at War a Small Jewel of a Film

Woman at War (Kona fer i stríö) (2018 film/2019 US release)
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
Magnolia Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated.
In Icelandic, Spanish, French, English with subtitles.

Woman at War was Iceland’s foreign film entry for the Oscars. It didn’t make the final cut and I suspect that was for two reasons. First, it is a hard to pigeonhole film. It gets called a comedy drama, but its humor is not the sort that Hollywood likes. Instead of broad and obvious, it is understated and offbeat. Second, Hollywood liberalism is always tempered by kowtowing to the moneyed interests that bankroll big budget movies. Woman at War takes on corporations­–and it does on what Hollywood would call a starvation diet of just $3 million. Woman at War is about an eco-activist who battles Iceland’s aluminum industry.

This is also the sort of quirky film that makes independent film such a creative delight–even when they go over the top. Director Benedikt Erlingsson mostly (but not always) strikes a balance between silliness and seriousness. The woman at the film's center is 47-year-old Halla (Halldóra Geirharòsdóttir), independent and single by choice, and a respected choral director who wears her politics on her sleeve. She rides her bike all over Reykjavik rather than owning a car, and her apartment walls are lined with posters of people such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. What only her innermost co-conspirators know is that she is also  “Mountain Woman,” an eco-activist who wages war against companies that are not carbon-neutral. In her mind, Iceland’s biggest polluter is Rio Tinto, an aluminum company owned by an English/Australian consortium. Halla wants to bring them down–literally. She shoots tipped arrows across their power lines to bring power and production to a halt. Although it’s not easy to do so, Halla evades would-be captors through a combination of intimate knowledge of Iceland’s southern highlands, commando-style survivalist techniques, help from a farmer, and unexpected luck.

Erlingsson–who also co-wrote the script–tempers his drama with farce. This is Geirharòsdóttir's show, but the secondary characters are a collection of oddballs: a willful farmer who might be Halla's distant cousin, a nervous Parliamentary insider/conspirator, bumbling pursuers, a Spanish tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), and Halla’s flaky ashram-bound twin sister Asa (also played by Geirharòsdóttir).

There is also a subplot involving a forgotten application. Four years earlier, Halla sought to adopt a Ukrainian refugee and suddenly an adorable five-year-old orphan girl awaits a surrogate mother. Halla’s triple life­–choral director, outlaw, soon-to-be mother–frame the film’s most unusual feature. Erlingsson alerts us that his tale is more fable than reality by inserting musicians directly into key shots. Depending upon what’s at stake, it’s either a sousaphone-led Icelandic band evocative of the off-kilter sounds of Gogol Bordello, or a female trio of a cappella Ukrainian singers in full traditional costume. If that’s not enough disruption of reality for you, the Spanish tourist is a Falstaff figure with a gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A film with this many twisted irons in the fire is bound to get in its own way at times. Woman at War is far from a perfect film. It is, at times, too silly and/or too sentimental. It also relies on some obvious sight gags, and you’ll have to make up your own mind whether the comedy serves or derails the film’s core environmental message. In my mind, though, this is a film with both wit and heart. Geirharòsdóttir is terrific as Halla/Asa, even if the latter character is something of a cartoon figure. She has a wonderfully plastic face that makes her physically convincing as a radiant singer, a determined outlaw, a yoga junkie, or a woman whose soft features are fading as she approaches 50. 

You could also use Woman at War to write a real-life script of the myriad ways in which big companies–and the politicians who let them get away with malfeasance–seek to sway public opinion by discrediting anyone who challenges their dark, cozy deals. A sort of side joke is that Iceland is already among the greenest nations on earth. It hasn’t burned coal since the 1980s and 100% of all consumer electricity comes from hydro (74%) or geothermal (26%) sources. 

I highly recommend this film. Surrender to its jarring surface devices and admire its inventiveness, its soul, and how it makes you think without beating you over the head with its message. If that doesn’t convince you, try this: You won’t forget how deliciously weird it is.

Rob Weir


Zappa Autobiography is Problematic

The Real Frank Zappa Book  (1990)
By Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso
Poseidon Press, 352 pages.

I don't read many music biographies because most have the same arc: a misunderstood childhood, teen struggles, solace in music, discovery, and rise to the top. Then it's either addiction and early death, or a lifesaving intervention and late-in-life bliss. So when I ran across a free copy of Frank Zappa's book–which I had never before read–I figured it had to be different. It was, but not in a good way.

Let's get this out of the way. Zappa (1955-93) was a brilliant artist in several genres: rock, jazz, orchestral, and experimental music. If you poke around on YouTube you can find his first TV appearance. It was on the old Steve Allen Show and Zappa played–are you ready?–a suite for bicycle spokes and handlebars. Most people know him as the frontman for The Mothers of Invention (MOI), a band with more quirks and weirdness than Madonna, Lady Gaga, KISS, and Alice Cooper could collectively rival. The MOI wasn't the sort of band one "liked" in a traditional fashion; one experienced the Mothers and then endlessly contemplated and discussed what it all might have meant. That band and all of Zappa's other projects, no matter the genre, was highly experimental. Think elements of beebop merged with whatever Zappa's mind thought fit into a sound swirl that might or might not have a melody.

Alas his book, published three years before he died of prostate cancer, is a lot like his music, which is to say chaotic and a product of vision that is often too personal to make sense to anyone but Zappa himself. Other parts are rants–against incompetent producers, censorship, and overall stupidity, for example–and still other passages are rather complex musings on composition. It is decidely not about the MOI to which he gives scant and scattered discussion. (The book's chronological development is, at best, loose.) Zappa's prose stretches the definition of free form. There are lots of passages in Zappa use italics for no discernible reason, and still others in which he uses BOLD type, again not necessarily for any grammatical or dramatic effect. The entire of the book reads as if it went from Zappa's head to the page. Check out his song lyrics and you can tell they are also more catarsis than contemplation. Wanted: A good editor.

What you do get is the impression that Zappa was a complex man. He was, for instance, simultaneously anti-drug, anti-censorship, and pro pornography. One can only imagine what he would think of today's trigger warnings and push to set limits on public speech. If you think Zappa was a 60s' Flower Child, think again. He hated most things about the counterculture, especially drugs and heavy drinking; Zappa routinely fired band members who used drugs. He lived amongst rich celebrities in Laurel Canyon, but he was a family man with four children, only one of whom (Moon) is not now in the music business. He called his political views "practical conservatism;" a better label would be libertarianism. Some of the chapter titles are almost self-explanatory: "How Weird Am I, Reallly?" (very!), "All About Music," "Send in the Clowns" (his rant against music as a business). I applauded the chapter titled "America Drinks and Goes Marching," in which he skewers what we might call empty-headed good ole boy flag-waving culture. There is also "Church and State," the separation of which he thought all conservatives should support. (Cancel the Fox retrsopective.)

I think you get the picture. If you come across this book anywhere, the best way to approach it it is to open it randomly and read. If it makes no sense, open to somewhere else. Repeat. In an odd way, such a strategy unveils the layers of Zappa's genius. His was a mind that never stopped, so don't try to keep up. The book as literature is rubbish. The book as insight is undoubtedly in the mind of the beholder.

Rob Weir