As documentaries go, few of them are as outright entertaining to watch as director Vanessa Gould’s fascinating treatment of The New York Times obituary reporters, called, appropriately enough, Obit.
It’s not hard to believe that no one has ever touched this subject as a feature film before, as on the surface it doesn’t seem that appetizing, but there is a lot of meat on these bones and Gould mines it for all its worth – and then some.
Focusing on the often forgotten journalistic art of obituary writing, Gould and her cameras invade The New York Times newsroom and zero in on their staff of obit reporters. This is a top notch group of newspaper veterans, now somewhat older, who have graduated to the obit desk where on a daily basis they act almost like investigative journos attempting to get to the essence of the now deceased and the lives they once led.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), there is much more to these stories than just the facts of their death, and in fact it is far more about the facts of their life. Deftly mixing archival footage of the famous, the infamous , and the not-so-famous but still significant lives of those who have recently passed on, Obit becomes a fascinating and pungent docu that examines humanity more than what is in the morgue. In fact, the only morgue you will see in this film is the one that bears the nickname for the NY Times’ vast archival library which is filled with rows and rows of newspaper clippings that may hold the answer to the mysteries of the lives these writers must chronicle, mostly in just a few short hours before their own deadline, so to speak.
Sequences set at the archive with the lone guy in charge showing us exactly what treasures lie there are among the best in the movie. The common practice of pre-written obits is also examined as he is the holder of the key to the securely locked files containing these articles. A pre-written obit for one then-young famous aviatrix from the early 30’s is shown because the person in question actually didn’t get around to dying until she was 98, and the Times finally got to use the piece written about 70 years earlier (probably by a long deceased obit writer). Why would they write an obit for such a young person at the time? It is explained it was her profession was thought so dangerous that they should be ready with one should she crash!
During the course of the day Gould had her cameras in the newsroom we see how an obit develops, especially in the case of veteran writer Bruce Weber’s piece on the guy who became the first political consultant for television when he advised John F. Kennedy on how to approach his famous 1960 debate with Richard Nixon, even to the point of applying makeup to show a sharp contrast between the young Senator and the sweating Vice President. Gould follows every aspect of this and it pays off beautifully.
Of course stories about the deaths of the very famous are also covered, particularly when Farrah Fawcett died, only to be upstaged a few hours later by the sudden death of Michael Jackson. Amazing stuff, all handled expertly by Gould and her editors.
This is my favorite documentary of 2017. so far. It will be hard to top for doing what the best kinds of docus do in uncovering something you may never have thought about, but definitely will now the next time you see an obit or are in one yourself. Producers are Gould and Caitlin Mae Burke. Kino Lorber has opened the film in NYC and L.A. with plans to expand in the coming weeks across the country. Highly recommended.
Do you plan to see Obit? Let us know what you think.