How do you put a life into 500 words? Ask the staff obituary writers at the New York Times. OBIT is a first-ever glimpse into the daily rituals, joys and existential angst of the Times obit writers, as they chronicle life after death on the front lines of history.
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Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death, and absolutely everything to do with life
I found this documentary about the obit writers at the New York Times fascinating, uplifting, full of life, and beautifully shot down to subtle details such as the fact that Margalit Fox's georgeous tapestry scarf matches the aqua blue of the antiquish tyewriter in the left rear of her shots. The chaotic disarray of the news clip room, the morgue, managed by curator, Jeff Roth, (in cuffed short shirtsleeves and narrow tie), who has worked there since 1993, sings with bulging, sliding files of yellowed history. As a professional organizer, my instincts might otherwise have been to "have a go" at bringing array to this laudable photo and article repository, (which seems by all tokens to be long past any point of return), yet I was captivated by the messy poetry in this story, very well told by Vanessa Gould.
"It's the job nobody thinks they want, a kind of Siberia," obit writer Margalit Fox says, "but it's the best beat in journalism because you're paid to tell peoples' stories. Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death, and absolutely everything to do with life."
The unique tasks of an obit writer, as well as the delight in encapsulating and honoring someone's life, are well presented in this film. Writer William Grimes explains, "A fortunate death for me is one that occurs and you hear about it at 9:00 a.m. and you have all day to put something together. The unfortunate death for me is the one that occurs and you hear about it when you're getting ready to leave... You walk out the door, and an editor comes over to you and says, 'Not so fast.'"
Among many riveting through-lines in the film was Bruce Weber's coverage of the death of William P. Wilson, the man who insisted on a single pole podium and applied Kennedy's light makeup before the Nixon Kennedy debate. Just days after the election, Kennedy himself acknowledged, "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide." The film offers up minute aspects of how Weber wrote this story, while also weaving in historic information of many other notable lives in order to illustrate how this obit team works to do justice to them at their time of death.
The obit mistake and the pre-written obits are discussed with flourish and wit, but retain humanity and reverence to life. Even the cubicles in each interview served, to me, (someone who has never worked in such a workspace), as a character in the film as the lilting music by composer Joel Goodman punctuated each Annie Hall-esque narrative observation. The NYT's obit crew are wry, grounded, quick-on-the uptake, talented journalists, the perfect team, compelling and compelled, to get this job done. Director of photography, Ben Wolf, did a spectacular job including a dazzling array of newsreels and vintage photo clips.
This film is unsentimental, yet moving; weighty, but inspiriting. I give it ten stars and highly recommend this movie. If you hate it, don't kill me.
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