It’s always the films about death which end up being the most life-affirming, isn’t it? Vanessa Gould’s “Obit” follows a group of unsung reporters who work the obituary column at The New York Times. Frequently given only a couple hours’ notice before their columns must go to press, these men and women race against the clock to capture the entirety of human lives within the span of a few hundred words. Sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, the film exudes a near-constant melancholy tempered with a surprising warmth towards life.
These reporters, or obituarians, aren’t just writers, they’re craftsmen. The film takes a decided interest in the sausage-making of their art. How do you choose who is important enough to be featured? Is a person important enough for 500 words? 600? 800? Do they warrant a picture? Two? Who gets their obituaries put on the front page, who gets a few paragraphs in the back pages? One of the most surprising revelations was the prestige of receiving a verb in your headline. Only one obituary a day gets a verb like “died” or “dies.” Everybody else usually gets their name, occupation, and their age at the time of death. Even in death there’s a hierarchy of power.
Most of the obituary writers didn’t aspire to their positions, they merely ended up there. But they all embody a sober dignity and occasionally even a certain bemusement. After all, what other job can have you investigating and writing up a chicken farmer one day, a beloved sideshow freak the next, and then a Soviet Premier? Basic research on subjects can dredge up baffling discoveries: a nondescript scientist was actually instrumental in the survival of several astronauts decades earlier; a pre-obit—a preemptive obituary written for somebody expected to die soon—for a pioneering aviatrix was found from the 1930s, proving nobody thought she would live beyond her teenage years, let alone into her nineties.
Obituarians are a dying breed in this information age when write-ups of dead celebrities are literally demanded mere minutes after their passings are announced. But the obituarians from the New York Times quietly continue their tradition of quality, of immortalizing the moment when, as one of them explains, a human being becomes history.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257