'Obit': Film Review

An enjoyable behind-the-scenes look at one of journalism's odder jobs.

At The New York Times, the obituary beat is no career dead-end.

Last year, Tribeca brought us Very Semi-Serious, an inside look at a staple of NYC's media world (the cartoons of The New Yorker) that has currency around the world. Vanessa Gould offers something quite similar, albeit less quirky, in Obit, taking us into the cubicles producing obituaries for The New York Times — not nearly the humor-free zone newcomers may expect. Engaging and lively, the doc will play well at fests and on small screens with media-watchers.

Almost immediately the movie clarifies that, at the Times, at least, obituaries are about lives lived: "Maybe a sentence or two will be about the death," says one "obituarist," and that leaves an awful lot of work for a writer on deadline who, as Maraglit Fox puts it, gets around seven hours to master a subject's entire life.

The section's first challenge is figuring out who makes the cut: Even before they've dug into the background of someone whose death has been announced, the journalists need a gut feeling for what makes someone who isn't a present-tense celebrity newsworthy. Sometimes they get lucky, as in the case of John Fairfax, the first person to ever cross an ocean in a rowboat. Turns out, that impressive feat was practically the least interesting thing about him: "At 9, he settled a dispute with a pistol. At 13, he lit out for the Amazon jungle," Fox's obituary marveled, going on to note that at one point "he was apprenticed to a pirate." Yep, the world lost someone worth celebrating on Feb. 8, 2012.

Many stories in the section are no-brainers, of course, and the film looks at how the deaths of historical figures and movie stars are handled. A politician like Ronald Reagan might have several drafts of his life composed by staffers before he dies; in the case of a Michael Jackson, music writer Jon Pareles may get an emergency call to sum up an icon's life on the spot. (As he would do for Prince just days after Obit's premiere.)

As in 2011's NYT-centric Page One, we sit in on a few editorial meetings to hash out which individuals make the cut and how much column space each should be allotted. Obit editor William McDonald gets to weigh the desires of writers like Bruce Weber and Paul Vitello, who seem often to fall in love with these people they'll never meet; why else would they beg for more space to, for example, write about the man who played bass on Bill Haley's 1954 record "Rock Around the Clock"?

Those writers make for fun company here, however much they claim people avoid them at cocktail parties. But they're sometimes upstaged by seersucker-clad Jeff Roth, an overseer of the paper's vast archive of clippings. Wry about the arcane way things are organized (or not) here, he's an obsessive whose enthusiasm is contagious. On the day he passes from this mortal realm — may it be several decades from now, and may no one use such a hackneyed euphemism — Roth would seem to promise an obituary worth reading.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Production company: Green Fuse Films
Director: Vanessa Gould
Producers: Caitlin Mae Burke, Vanessa Gould
Executive producers: Pamela Tanner Boll, Geralyn White Dreyfous
Director of photography: Ben Wolf
Editor: Kristin Bye
Composer: Joel Goodman
Sales: Cinetic

Not rated, 94 minutes

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