Perhaps no other newspaper section celebrates life as much as the obituaries.
That’s not a macabre joke.
Think about it. When you read an obituary, how much of the story is devoted to the details about the death of a notable individual? Five percent?
Probably less. Of course the obit is going to include the age of the deceased and a few details about the cause of death — but the real story is filled with heartwarming anecdotes about the subject, interesting career achievements, unique characteristics and, yes, the setbacks and the stumbles.
You might think a documentary about the obituary writers at the New York Times would be a depressing, sobering, scholarly work — but it’s anything but.
Vanessa Gould’s “Obit” is a life-affirming, slyly amusing, affectionate tribute to the skilled reporters at the New York Times who spend their days gathering information and writing the first-draft mini-histories of the most interesting players on the world stage, from superstar celebrities to historical supporting players to anonymous figures who impacted our lives without us ever knowing their names — until they died.
The continuous thread in “Obit” is reporter Bruce Weber’s construction of the obituary for one William P. Wilson, who was the advisor for John F. Kennedy for the landmark Kennedy/Nixon debates of 1960.
It was Wilson who applied just the right amount of makeup on Kennedy prior to the first and most pivotal debate in Chicago. It was Wilson who insisted on single-stemmed lecterns that would showcase Kennedy’s fit and trim appearance in contrast to Richard Nixon’s sickly, hunched over look. It was Wilson who literally stood outside the men’s room at the CBS Studios in Chicago just before the debate, waiting for Kennedy to emerge, so he could make sure the candidate still looked perfect.
Weber works the phones, toys with various leads, makes multiple trips to the coffee room, all the while keeping his eye on the clock and the looming deadline. Like the other writers profiled in “Obit,” he acknowledges his job description makes others uncomfortable. (After all, he ends nearly every phone call with, “Again, I’m sorry for your loss.”)
But as obit writer Margalit Fox points out, “It’s counterintuitive … but obits have next to nothing to do with death … and everything to do with life.”
(Fox also answers to critics who say the New York Times’ obit section doesn’t feature enough women and minorities by pointing out the great majority of obits are about individuals who died in their late 70s, 80s or 90s — and the reality is, when these people were making their mark on the world many decades ago, white men were often the only ones even given the opportunity to make a mark.)
Gould does a masterful job of sprinkling in archival footage to give us a break from the talking-head stuff, e.g., when a “Mad Men” type passes away, we see some of the groundbreaking ads he created in the 1960s.
“Obit” also addresses the unique challenge faced when a major celebrity dies unexpectedly. Even a newspaper as well staffed as the New York Times doesn’t have the resources to prep advance obits for untold thousands of public figures. (Although they do have a number of tributes ready to go — with a few updates, of course — for when older public figures pass away.) We learn how an obit desk has to react quickly when a Philip Seymour Hoffman or a Michael Jackson or a Prince passes away.
Every minute you’re working on the story is another minute many in the news-consuming world are waiting to read that obit online.
Director Vanessa Gould will answer questions posed by Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell after the 7:15 p.m. Friday showing and introduce the next showing at 9:40.
Kino Lorber presents a documentary directed by Vanessa Gould. No MPAA rating. Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.