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.
Written by Leroy Anderson
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"Obits have next to nothing to do with death and everything with life"
"Obit" (2016 release; 93 min.) is a documentary about the team of 4 or 5 obituary writers at the New York Times. As the movie opens, we see Bruce Weber, the NYT obit reporter, in discussion with the widow of someone who was a name in politics decades ago. We get to know the rest of the NYT obit team, and how they go about selecting whom to write up for tomorrow's print edition. At this point we're not even 15 min. into the movie but to tell you more would spoil your viewing experience, you'll just have to see for yourself how it all plays out.
Couple of comments: this is the feature length documentary debut from director Vanessa Gould. Here she gets close access to how the team of NYT obit writers go about their business every day. Comments one: "Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and everything with life", and in that sense of course obits are a celebration, but still you are dealing with life that has come to an end. Gould makes sure to cover all the bases of obit writing, including how to fact check and how to evaluate potential write-ups ("a virtuous life doesn't mean it's newsworthy", comments another). If there is something missing in the movie, it's that there is zero tension, or even anything truly unexpected. Yes, it's fun to see how certain obscure figures (such as the guy who was the first ever to be a TV adviser in a presidential campaign--that would be the defining TV debate in 1960 between Nixon and Kennedy) get their moment in the light--albeit post-mortem). I also couldn't help but wonder, given how the newspaper industry is going, whether one day someone will be writing an obit about the NYT obit department...
I recently saw "Obit" at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC. The Friday early evening screening where I saw this at was packed to the rafters, as in: SOLD OUT to the very last seat, much to my surprise. Who knew there would be such an interest in this topic? I found the documentary mildly amusing but I have seen much more compelling documents recently (such as "God Knows Where I Am"). On the other hand, if you have a particular interest in obits, then by all means, this movie is for you and you should check it out, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray.
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