Those of us on social media know the feeling; that sense of dread when everybody in your feed is suddenly talking about a famous person you hadn’t thought of in a while. Go back far enough in your timeline and you see why.
A lot of us are amateur obituarists now, posting our remembrances and recollections in 140-character bites on Twitter or a little more on Facebook. That collective outpouring can be a fine and even necessary way to mourn – at least until the point when people in your feed start making inappropriate jokes. But the documentary “Obit,” now out on DVD from Kino Lorber, makes the case for leaving it to the pros.
Vanessa Young’s charming documentary looks at the staff responsible for the New York Times obituary pages, mostly writers in their late 50s or so, for whom mortality is more than just a theoretical construct. The film alternates between watching these writers at work with brief biographical dips into the lives of their subjects, from the infamous (David Bowie, Michael Jackson) to the less so (one of New York’s last typewriter repairman).
As such, there’s no real narrative arc or drive to “Obit,” and it may be better viewed as a series of short films laid out next to each other, like articles on a crowded New York Times page. The obituary writers may joke that their professions are conversation-stoppers at parties, but they’re all thoughtful and engaging people.
One thing they stress over and over is that they don’t write about death – well, perhaps briefly in the second paragraph where the cause of death is invariably listed. The rest of an obituary is about the life lived, and the writers strive to capture that with honesty, grace, drama and even humor. All, sometimes, in just 500 words. No wonder they sometimes go right up against the Times’ 6 o’clock deadline.
As a lifelong newspaperman, I was perhaps excessively fascinated by the details of working at the Old Gray Lady. A trip to the morgue (its mortician a certified “character”) is a delight, with the endless rows of news clippings all neatly arranged in thousands of drawers, waiting to be needed.
We learn that sometimes the reporters write “advances” – pre-obituaries for famous people who are getting on in years, so they’re not caught flat-footed by news of someone’s death. Those advances, in a touch that’s perhaps superstitious, are kept in a locked filing cabinet that only the filing clerks have access to. The oldest “advance” was written in 1931 for a 16-year-old stunt pilot who defied death as part of her job. It wasn’t needed until she died, 82 years later.
Much like another documentary about the New York Times, “Page One,” “Obit” is a little scattershot and unfocused. But it’s an enjoyable look inside one corner of a newspaper, a corner that in turn happens to look out onto all of the human existence – artists and politicians, heroes and villains, the famous and the obscure. And if, after watching it, you can resist turning to the obituaries the next time you come across an issue of the Times, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.