Film Review: Obit

Obituaries, or their writers, never get much limelight unless they are covering the death of famous people. The word “obituary” elicits the image of four or five small paragraphs shortly describing the life and death of someone who you have no connection to. “Obit”, a new documentary by Vanessa Gould, shows the merit and humanity of Obituaries and their writers. Gould follows the obituary department at the New York Times and the various characters that work there. The films starts with Bruce Weber as he begins a new obituary by interviewing the spouse of a recently deceased man. The questions are standard; “Where was he born”, “Did he go to public school”, “What was his father’s name and profession.” Throughout the film we cut back to Weber writing this one obituary, and come to understand that this person who died was William P. Wilson, a television consultant for John F. Kennedy and the reason that Kennedy won that famous presidential debate.

Within just an hour and a half, the audience knows what a day looks like for an obituary writer as well as the challenges and merits of the field itself. Humorous stickers line these writer’s cubicles, with one stating “Please Die”, and the film manages to touch on both the humor and seriousness of death. Each character is aware of the absurdity of working in a department so close to death, yet they also take seriously the task of representing someone’s life as truthfully as they can. Each one has spent years in their field and they offer insights that only come from time spent critically engaged in the process. Understanding the inner-workings of the obituary process is interesting, but the weight of the film comes from the writers relation to the subject. These are people who think deeply about their subjects and about the genre of obituaries, and their varying approach and styles end up being reflections of their characters.

Gould’s montage approach to film works well with the subject. The through line of Weber’s obituary provides a focus to a film that could easily have gotten off track. The form of obituaries are discussed, people’s reaction to the field, the stress of competing with the internet. It gives audiences a glimpse into a form of journalism often overlooked. At times, Gould’s editing unnecessarily enhances the uniqueness of the character. When meeting Jeff, the man who works in the department where news clippings are kept on various people, the audio is edited to overlap, creating the image of a frenetic talking man who spends his days alone in the basement of a building. He is a unique character, there’s no doubt about that, but there is no reason to amplify this through cinematic techniques.

The beauty of the film is as much about the writers and writing, as well as about contemplating the lives of the deceased and our relation to death. It is inevitable for all of us, and the concept of leaving a legacy behind can be seen in the writings of the ancient Greeks. We perhaps don’t contemplate death enough in today’s society, and some would say that’s a flaw since everything we do is in relation to death. Perhaps it is and whose to say what is the right amount of contemplation is, but hearing the lives of others that have passed gives us the sense that we can’t get lost in the minutiae of our everyday lives. It’s a film that reminds us of our place in the world, and our relation to everyone who came before and who sits beside us.