“Obit” is a surprisingly lively film.
Surprising, obviously, because the focus is on obituaries, those usually formulaic, often sappy notices of death. But here the focus is on the obituary writers for the New York Times who, as a group, choose to spotlight the thing missing from too many obituaries: Life.
Oh sure, NYT obits include cause and date of death as well as basic survivors information, both mainstays of the form. But they go beyond the bare facts and look for more: What was unique to this person, how did they fit in the history of things, how did they reflect their times or presage the future?
To be sure, these writers have quite a bit more to work with than most obituary writers. The Times is both a national and international paper, so any death on earth is fair game. But at the same time choosing who’s worthy becomes a dicey process of elimination.
“Obit” follows the progress in a day of two obituaries — one of a man who groomed John F. Kennedy for his televised presidential debates with Richard Nixon, thus setting the template for all televised debates to come; and another for a “Mad Men”-era advertising hotshot whose name few know, but whose TV ads were seen by untold millions.
At the same time the documentary puts the world of obits in context. There are some looks back at greatest hits, there is the frenzy of dealing with the unexpected death of well-known figures (think Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, etc.), as well as the prepared obits for those known to be ailing or simply aged.
From a journalistic standpoint working on the obit desk forces you to be a quick-change artist. If you’re covering politics, sports, movies, most things, you have a pretty good idea what you’re writing about day to day. For an obit writer every day offers a new subject, one you have to research, absorb and portray in a matter of hours.
There are also insights into how the obit pages track societal change; for decades most obits were about white men because few women or minorities were able to live “notable” lives. But in recent years, as more and more obits are about people who lived in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, that white male supremacy has faded.
Directed by Vanessa Gould, “Obit” manages to be both about a specific type of journalism and the larger world it reflects while dropping in all manner of colorful lives and circumstances. It is a pinwheel of ethics, social reflection, dedication to craft and the human spirit, and it makes the plain point that the best obituaries don’t grieve, they celebrate.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Running time: 93 minutes
At The Detroit Film Theatre