When one thinks of documentaries that could rightly be described as “enjoyable,” a look into the life and work of men and women sitting behind obituary desks at the world’s largest newspaper doesn’t instantly leap to mind. However, in the hands of director Vanessa Gould, that’s ostensibly what one gets in her latest film, Obit.
Obit introduces us to the obituary writing team at The New York Times, led by editor William McDonald, and his team including writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes and Paul Vitello, among others. All with distinct senses of humor and perspective, Gould’s film shines a distinctly vital light on each writer and the process they and the paper go through to pen their pieces. From giving a word length to a person’s life, to trying to define just what constitutes an obituary in today’s boundary pushing world, each writer has a clear voice and Gould’s film launches the viewer head first into the craft behind summating one person’s entire life.
The viewer also gets some insight into just how wide reaching this section can truly get. From giving pages of writing to icons like Michael Jackson, to giving hundreds of words to the creator of The Slinky, the obituary section is a mishmash of lost souls with each writer attempting to encapsulate and contextualize the impact of each person on the broader world. This wide reaching scope also extends to the craft itself, which has evolved from stilted fact recounting to some of the paper’s most intriguing and artistically creative writing. Toss in an intriguing look at the vaunted “advanced obit” catalog (which includes over 1700 obituaries that are written prior to a person’s death and occasionally updated over the years) and you have a film that does a superb job at giving the viewer a broad look at a subsection of a newspaper one rarely thinks of.
It’s just too bad that the film isn’t as aesthetically playful as some of the writing here is. Ostensibly your standard talking head documentary, the film lives squarely in the tradition of modern documentary filmmaking that consists primarily of interviews and archival footage. The energy of each writer elevates the material, but rarely does it feel much more than a meer curio for anyone interested in writing or broader pop culture. Charming as all hell, Obit is briskly paced, and there are brief moments with the paper’s archivist Jeff Roth which are utterly captivating. In these moments we spend time with a man who is completely surrounded by the lives of men and women long gone, and there’s something rapturous about it. There’s also something entrancing about the process of one deciding who is and isn’t worthy of an obituary, and the process therein of giving a word count to each life. Hell, I can barely keep a review locked in to a specific word count, so seeing a writer try to edit down a person’s entire life to a certain word count is utterly fascinating. There’s one sequence in particular, as they work on an obituary of William P. Wilson (advisor to JFK for his 1960 TV debates), that enlightens the entire world these writers live in. Despite being classical in its aesthetic, this is one of the year’s most engaging non-fiction films.