By Elias Savada.
This film is for me. I am a genealogist and death is a constant on my family tree. I read obituaries every day. I also peruse death notices, those announcements placed, and paid for, by the deceased’s family. Obituaries are a lot more interesting. My father, Morton, had a grand obituary in The New York Times, which led with “For 30 years, the turntable tucked in the corner of Records Revisited rarely rested.” (Read the full text here – he was a fascinating guy.) So I (and my ancestors) definitely have a connection to Vanessa Gould’s poetic ode and insightful tribute Obit.
For Gould, a Long Island-native who cut her teeth on television – including the Peabody Award-winning Between the Folds – Obit. (yes, the period is part of the title) is her first theatrical feature. She takes what you expect to be a rather ordinary process and embeds her crew with a lovely group of writers from The Times, some current, others retired. They are William McDonald, Margalit Fox, Bruce Weber, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, and Paul Vitello.
They spin (and write) tales about the glamorous and the infamous. The quirky and the smart. Those that are too young to die, and the others you thought died years ago. Celebrities and world leaders, of course. Their common trait? Death. And that their lives influenced someone with an impact worthy enough for the obituary team to take notice.
As the camera moves about cubicles of the obituary department, Gould recreates more than a few days-in-the-life of these writers, who condense a lifetime of a person in a 7-hour job. How interesting is it to start your day with the question, “Who’s dead?”
Throughout the film, the writers read from their creations, and Gould (and her editor Kristin Bye) fashion a visual layer upon the printed word. Often it might be a home movie or an ancient newsreel of the subject, such as John Fairfax, “the first lone oarsman to traverse any ocean.” Beyond the basics of your birth-death-marriage details, some of the writers delve into some smaller (and some horrifying) moments that flesh out a person’s life.
There is commentary about the people who request an obit for a relative or friend (that didn’t happen in my father’s case, at least not from me), and it’s up to the writer who gets a request via email or phone to investigate its worthiness. No surprise, there’s apparently a lot of exaggeration out there. Case studies ensue.
Twenty minutes into the film, the public gets its first look at “The Morgue,” the clipping files archive of The New York Times. At one point, it had 30 people working in it. Now, just one. That would be Jeff Roth, credited as “Filer and Re-filer.” I used to clip back in the 1970s and 1980s, cutting from news and trade publications, collecting all sorts of information on movies. I still have over 34-file drawers of this stuff in my basement, destined for deposit with an institution of higher learning later this year. My holdings pale in comparison to the 10,000 or so drawers that are part of the Times’ morgue. There’s a certain whimsicality to these segments, as Gould cuts and overlaps the commentary by Roth as he takes us on a guided tour, promoting some incredible gems.
You get a good dose of the entertaining, seductive, and even subversive approaches that the current group of writers like to use. They share a lovely warmth that imbues some of the obituaries. Transferring their workplace hominess to the documentary meant texturing their comments with available historic footage and photographs (often used by the writers in framing their columns).
Another segment plays with the unknown Manson Whitlock, a typewriter repairman. The filmmakers add in some clickity-clacks to the lively footage. including wonderful 1950s footage of the great entertainer Liberace playing “The Typewriter Song” (although the shot of him lighting the mini-candelabra on top the Remington manual machine was clipped – watch the full uncut song here).
The talking heads, all of which take up a good portion of the film’s 95-minute length, also show how they can struggle with certain stories. Originality can be a hard nut to crack, and I suspect all these folks take thoughtful walks to the (really nice) coffee machines. Especially if you are forced to fit any item into a limited word count. It’s like me trying to hit 800 words on each review. How much is a person worth in terms of “news judgment.” (Dad had 669.) Other editorial matters and tidbits get some attention, particularly the need to have some factual confirmation of death in the second paragraph. That came about when the paper ran an obituary and then found out the person hadn’t actually died.
The last third of the film moves into the competition that the Internet has wrought on this profession: the demand for immediacy.
This is an excellent little film about the poetry and eloquence that a big New York City landmark finds in writing about the dead. Obit. is abundant with minutiae about the obituary methodology. Even the “advance obituary” gets airtime here, focusing on aviatrix Eleanor Smith, whose first “write-up” was done in 1931, when she was 20. She died in 2010.
Gould keeps her film upbeat, offering a nice respite from life’s daily struggles. I do hope when I die, I get a nice write up in the Times. It doesn’t have to be 669 words, either. If the right people are reading this, here’s a good place to start.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).