Vanessa Gould’s Obit is a self-conscious expository documentary that leans heavily on context from its participants. The film chronicles the ins and outs of the obituary department at The New York Times, where writers are typically placed under strenuous deadlines to produce 500-to-800 words on recently deceased persons of note. Gould’s approach constructs its portrait of the department’s daily activities around action shots of reporters collecting information, archival footage of the subjects being written about, and head-on interviews with writers divulging anecdotes and tidbits about the tricks of the trade. Rather than feeling comprehensive, which the approach intimates, Obit unfolds as a series of starts and stops, content to depict an array of challenges a particular obit might present to the staff but without managing a distinctive take related either to death or journalism in the 21st century.
One could be tempted to read these formal choices as a mirror of the New York Times’s obit section itself, with the greater force of the paper’s obituaries offering a time capsule for the deceased. Gould structures most of the documentary’s segments in relation to an individual obit, where staff writers explain portions of their process as it pertains to the specific information regarding the obit’s subject. Obit redundantly hustles through both biographical details pertaining to the departed and difficulties faced by the staff with little accumulation of feeling or weight relating to the larger scope of writing obituaries. In short, the conventional filmmaking devices simplify the obit process in an effort to make the material more easily navigable.
Obit distinguishes between two circumstances for obituaries: the expected and the unexpected. The binary allows Gould to provide a discussion of the newspaper’s lot of advanced obits—drafts written for people who are thought to be near death. In these cases, “obituarists,” as they’re known, need only to alter a few nuts and bolts to ready the piece for press. The filmmaker largely focuses on the unexpected, though, so that David Foster Wallace and Michael Jackson are contextualized by the suddenness of their deaths, which prompts a flurry of cooperative action as writers place phone calls and scribble prose to make the nine p.m. deadline. As we learn, not all obits are written under ideal conditions: The main author of Jackson’s obituary claims to have locked himself inside his office and listened to a sampling of Jackson’s music while conceiving the obit under a tight deadline.
Gould consistently unearths useful details from her subjects, but Obit displays little visionary means for channeling them into a whole and ascribes to a conventionally contrapuntal take on the lives of those who spend all day surrounded by death. As expected, these writers aren’t incessantly morbid people; in fact, they approach their daily tasks with humor and levity. Yet Gould hitches the film’s entirely livelihood to unmasking this premise, as if the revelation that writers have lives outside of their offices and profession is surprising, or even worth mentioning. Significantly, Obit engages a folk rhetoric of “people always ask me…” so that anecdotal inquiries from writers’ friends and family structures Gould’s own perceptions and interests.
The more thoroughly observational moments, unimpeded by talking heads, yield the most gravity, as the quotidian task of a well-intentioned journalist (and stranger) dialing the deceased’s next of kin to ask for corroboration on facts and information carries a certain somber elegance. Insightful anecdotes carry the most weight in Gould’s interview-based approach, as when one writer explains how he’s kept awake at night by the fear of factual errors rather than his own impending death. Yet even here, the filmmaker treats the statement as a quirk that defines a journalist’s psychology rather than conceiving its significance in absentia of a packaged premise of professional decorum. In trying to define the New York Times’s obit department, the documentary implicitly eulogizes the dwindling existence of such journalistic institutions by selling its practitioners as kind souls selflessly dedicated to celebrating a life at its moment of extinction.