As strange as it sounds, the new Vanessa Gould (Between the Folds) directed film about obituary writers at The New York Times is a genuine treat that celebrates inventive writing, investigative journalism, and a level of compassion that few human beings are called upon to tap into every single day at the office. Gould and her subjects focus on the often quick turnaround times that most obit writers are forced to perform under, sometimes finding out about an important death in the middle of the day and having to have it ready for their editor just a few hours later. But in that time, they must immerse themselves in a stranger’s life so completely that they become a temporary expert in every facet of their existence.
Obit. shows such well-regarded writers as Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox and William McDonald calling the families of people deemed worthy enough to receive more extended write-ups in the obituary section of the paper. If it’s someone especially well known, they will throw a couple of initial paragraphs on the internet and flesh it out as the day goes on. But more often than not, the subject did one extraordinary thing in their life and has likely been forgotten for it, so this obituary is their last chance to regain something of a legacy. It’s an immense responsibility that this team of writers doesn’t take lightly.
The film is filled with humor (gallows and otherwise) as the writers talk about sometimes stumbling upon subject’s most interesting moments. And is often the case, they typically only have 700-1000 words to encapsulate a person’s entire life. Anyone who thinks this job is simply about listing name, age, cause of death and survivors clearly has no idea what these people do or how the obituary pages function.
One of the most fascinating elements of Obit. involves touring the clip morgue, which appears to be a yellowing mess of papers and file cabinet drawers, but those who oversee and maintain its contents know where just about everything is—unless it it filed incorrectly and forever lost in the infinite void. It’s also remarkable to watch how the entire team (along with other Times writers) pulls together when a famous figure in politics, sports or entertainment dies (the scramble when Michael Jackson died is a major sequence in the movie).
By the end of Obit., you feel like you’ve spent a few days shadowing these remarkable writers—most of whom have other jobs at the newspaper or interests that also involve writing— capturing the pressure of deadlines, the struggle to convince others of the importance of their subject, and even the heartbreak when they make a mistake and are forced to make a correction. Weber makes a simple mistake that we (unknowingly) see him make early in the film, and it’s clear he is devastated by it when the error is caught. In many ways, director Gould is mirroring her subjects’ experiences. She spends a relatively short amount of time with these writers and finds a way to capture their essence in the few short, tightly edited minutes of her film. In the end, you wonder if your life’s accomplishments would get you such an expertly written obituary. If so, you certainly hope it’s written by people who care as much about their work as these folks.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Director Vanessa Gould will be in attendance for an audience Q&A following the Friday, May 19, at the 7:15pm showing; she will also introduce the 9:40pm screening that night.