Like many people, I mostly only think about obituary writers when someone famous dies. My understanding is that most obituaries are written by family members, but I thankfully have not yet needed to take on that responsibility. It feels unfortunate that my newfound appreciation for the subject was nearly immediately put into practice when reading about the death of Chris Cornell.
Obit is a ‘day in the life’ style documentary about the writers of the New York Times Obituary desk. The film offers an inside look at not only how obituaries are written but why they are written. It is an interesting sort of journalism, where the news reporting aspect is truly all contained in the headline and lede. Most obituaries are a sort of capsule biography, and as one of the eloquent writers featured in the film says it, obituaries capture human lives “at the moment they become history.”
And so half of Obit falls into one of my favorite kinds of film, which is a genre loosely described as “people good at their jobs doing their jobs well.” You could also call it competency porn. A few recent Tom Hanks films fall into this category, like Bridge of Spies and Captain Philips. Both men have seemingly boring jobs until something unusual happens to them. Obituary writing is a little bit like that in the sense that though death is clearly inevitable, the publishing demands of the internet and a daily newspaper may make a particular person’s death a sort of call into action.
The staff writers featured in the film meet the expected level of quirkiness with ease, but all are likewise loquacious and thoughtful. Each of them think about their role a slightly different way, and of course have their points of view, yet they are united in purpose. It also helps that they are charming, and the filmmakers’ work seems to only enhance that sense. The other major figure in the documentary is Jeff Roth, the last remaining archivist working in the Times’ archives, lovingly called “the morgue.” He is also a quirky and fascinating individual, and the existence of the morgue itself is a reminder that not everything is digital, including their hundred years (plus) of clippings.
The other half of this film is a sort of meditation not on death itself, but how our present is constantly transitioning into history. How we memorialize these figures is important, and an obituary is an important part of that process. From that perspective, they need to be fair to a subject, but never deferential. It seems a fine line to walk given that these writers spend a portion of their time talking to grieving families. Margalit Fox, one of the writers, also talks about the passage of generations, and how it impacts the diversity of their desk. Meaning, as each year passes, the accomplishments of old white men dominate less obit space, leaving room for the first and second generations of women and people of color who helped change the world.
Vanessa Gould has crafted a documentary that is extremely engaging, especially when the act of writing is typically so abstract. It is also about death but never weepy. Rather it is a stirring and compassionate look at all of us. Death is something that stalks us all, and if we are remembered by the impact we make, a few hundred words in The New York Times seems like an admirable goal with which to measure that impact. And yet we know that all of us, regardless of whether our deaths are “newsworthy” have a huge impact on our friends and loved ones just by being who we are, no matter how small it sometimes feels.
Obit opens at the Ritz Bourse today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.