Obit (Hot Docs Review)
“It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” So states William Grimes, former book and restaurant critic, and current obituary writer, for the New York Times, in director Vanessa Gould’s marvelous documentary Obit. While the quote perfectly captures the essence of what real obituary writing is about, the film goes deeper than that, offering a lesson in history, a glimpse behind the scenes at the New York Times, a course in journalism, and a clinic in succinct writing.
It’s a tricky story to tell, as it combines a morbid subject with an activity—writing—that doesn’t necessarily make for compelling viewing. Gould understands this and rises to the challenge by approaching her subject from several angles. The backbone of the film is the linear thread: the anatomy of an obituary, from a fact-finding phone interview with a decedent’s widow first thing in the morning, to discussions on narrative approach in the afternoon, to filing the piece just under deadline in the evening.
Routinely stepping away from this so as not to get lost in function, Gould features a collection of deftly edited discussions with the NYT’s obit writing and editorial staff. Each discussion is fascinating, but none more so than those with Jeff Roth, the gloriously eccentric man in charge of “The Morgue,” where the newspaper’s history, and by extension the history of everyone who has ever been mentioned in the paper, is stored and catalogued. These discussions offer terrific anecdotal insight into the perception of obituaries and, more importantly, their history. This is where Gould’s film takes off.
A highlight reel of dazzling breadth, consisting of memories, news clips, and even video footage, spotlights one of the most interesting facets of obituaries: who gets one. Unlike your local paper, the NYT doesn’t publish everyone’s obit; someone has to have had a measurable impact to warrant one.
And it isn’t just celebrities, world leaders, or titans of industry who are considered to have had an impact. Included in this collection are the inventor of the Slinky, the pilot of the Enola Gay, an exotic dancer with ties to Jack Ruby, and the last surviving plaintiff from Brown v Board of Education, to name only a few. Every story is as amazing as the one before it and after, and if the anatomy of an obit is the backbone of the film, these highlight reels are the alluring soft parts.
With Obit, Vanessa Gould proves something I’ve said for years: pound-for-pound…or perhaps word-for-word is more apt…there is no better writing, and no better storytelling, in any national daily newspaper than there is in the obituary section. Obits are more than resumés of the deceased; obits are everyone’s last chance at life.