Obit is an eloquent, observant, and superbly crafted documentary by Vanessa Gould on the New York Times obituary writers and the people they cover.
One of the writers says writing obits isn’t sad because they are writing mostly about a person’s life rather than their death. I can see why that would be the case, but in spotlighting their subjects from over the years—including well-known ones like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams and ones unknown to me like William Wilson and Elinor Smith—the film made me as a viewer grieve all over again. It felt a lot like a memorial service: celebratory, but with an undercurrent of grief. I think of the Japanese concept of mono no aware: the awareness of the transience of things. Or as Wikipedia puts it, “a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”
But it’s the writers themselves who are the subjects of the film, and they are as articulate, quirky, and wry as you’d expect NYT veteran writers to be. Kudos to them for their work, which I ought to seek out more. The literal deadlines they are faced with seem like a case of “take your time, hurry up”. One minute they could be working on an advance obit for someone who could die at any time (Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush come to mind), and the next minute word of Michael Jackson’s death arrives and they are 4 hours from print deadline. What a job!
There’s also Jeff Roth, the lone caretaker of the “morgue”, the Times‘s underground archive of historical news clippings, photographs, and other archival material, all stored in rows and rows of filing cabinets and bankers boxes. It’s an historian’s dream: oodles of material to look through, organized enough but not too much to allow for serendipity to strike. He and the Morgue are probably a documentary in themselves.
Gould’s cameras eavesdrop among the warren of cubicles in the Obit section, with longer than expected takes just watching the writers type at their computers and capturing their asides and narrated thoughts about where they are in the process. The slick editing certainly has something to do with it, but it’s the rare instance of the writing process being just as interesting as the writing itself.
Obit pairs well with Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, which is itself a kind of advance obituary on Ebert. Through his writing Ebert captured the lives of those on screen with a combination of strength and tenderness. The writers in Obit aren’t nearly as famous as he was, but their work is just as salutary to the soul.