While at first glance you might think you need a morbid bent to truly appreciate a documentary on the obituarists of The New York Times, this would be unfair to Vanessa Gould’s Obit. Yes, it’s a film about death and a line of work that thrives on talking about and anticipating the deaths of notable people.
This, however, is too simplistic, since Obit, very early on, makes it clear that obituaries are as much a celebration of life as a marker of someone’s passing. It’s this important aspect, along with the obituary writers’ respect for the people they cover and the peculiarity of their trade, that makes this documentary so entertaining.
Obit is entertaining in its own small ways. It is, after all, little more than reel after reel of talking heads. But these talking heads are incredibly well-spoken and among the best (and last, since few papers spend resources on obituaries) in their field, while the world of obituaries is one filled with curious anecdotes and strange coincidences. This, combined with a more behind-the-scenes look at the writing and editorial processes, is what actually drives Obit. Documentaries, normally, are only as entertaining as their subject matter. Gould has managed to find what’s surprisingly robust and just a little mysterious.
Obit manages to show the quirkier side of obituaries, the masses of files that live in the basement of the Times, the strict deadlines and the sudden, unexpected deaths of the ultrafamous that occasionally send obituary writers scrambling. More often than not, the obituary page of the Times is about someone integral to history but who’s been mostly forgotten (or perhaps never even noticed) by the public at large. The film makes it obvious that the writers who are the subject of the movie take their responsibilities very seriously. There’s an amount of respect that these journalists take, reporting on the lives of these strangers, that makes the movie vaguely heartwarming and wholly human.
Obit is surprisingly thorough, covering aspects (like diversity in the subjects of obituaries) that wouldn’t have even occurred to me to broach. It’s an incredibly broad occupation for these writers, wherein they have to become an expert on a person’s entire life and work in a matter of hours. Obit manages to get a sense of how stressful and daunting this work can be. That being said, the movie has no real arc and no real dramatic tension, meaning the movie doesn’t have much to latch onto besides being interesting. It’s this small flaw that keeps an honestly entertaining movie from being a memorable one. Not Rated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.