Film Review: Obit
OBIT (2017) DIR. VANESSA GOULD
By Belle McIntyre
In the documentary, Obit, which delves into the daily life of the New York Times obituary department, we learn that the “morgue” has nothing to do with dead bodies and everything to do with the lives of notable people who will at some point be the subject of an article on the pages of the New York Times. The “morgue” is the most antiquated looking archive of old-fashioned hand-labeled file cabinets with folders stuffed with newspaper clippings, photographs and miscellaneous ephemera and an organizing system which no one fully understands, including the single devoted staff person who has been the sole custodian for many years and loves the place and it’s randomness.
The whole film takes place in the offices of the Times and gives an unvarnished look at what the job is like and how the writers tackle the daunting task of re-creating the whole picture of a persons life in one day. It is anything but a gloomy, morbid atmosphere. Rather, it is a combination of detective work, fact checking and, most importantly, summing up in 500 to 800 words the salient aspects which make that subject worthy of notice and record. The Times is credited with altering the craft of obituary writing into the lively and evocative style that is employed today. And, as one of the writers points out, the majority of an obituary is about the life. There is usually only one sentence about the death, which includes the date, circumstances and who’s been left behind. Interestingly, the policy is never to use euphemisms like “passed on”. The word is died.
It really makes you appreciate what nimble and creative writers these folks are. Every day they come to work and either find a worthy newly-dead candidate or are assigned one to write about. In most cases they will have never heard of them, which means they must try to reconstruct that life in such a way that it can be sensitively and accurately presented in a significant tribute which will live on. That is a lot of pressure. But they all seem to love their jobs and who can blame them? Every day brings a new and different challenge and they are obviously consummate professionals and they richly deserve the recognition that this film gives them. I cannot imagine being able to pull that off daily. Kudos are appropriate.