The New York Times is one of the few publications with full-time obituary writers on staff, who each morning tackle a new life suddenly at its end, summing up in a few hundred words how this one person changed our world and why we should care. The subject could be a cultural icon like Elizabeth Taylor, or someone obscure like John Fairfax, who rowed solo across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Either way, all the writers start from scratch with their sources, calling friends and family caught in the midst of funeral planning, scanning yellowed clippings from the paper’s “morgue” archives, and acting as their own fact checkers in the race against the evening’s deadline.
Director Vanessa Gould follows a day of working on the “dead beat” of the New York Times in Obit, which had its world premiere on Sunday as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Like her previous work on the 2008 Between the Folds celebrating origami masters, Obit is a character-driven film, guided by her interviews with the obituary writers.
“Obituaries have next to nothing to do with death, and absolutely everything to do with life,” says writer Margalit Fox. Death is, of course, present. Often, the obituary subjects are in their 70s to 90s, but there are also unexpected losses that catch everyone off guard. The writers and editors emphasize that although they do have hundreds of advances for people who are getting up there (Stephen Sondheim, they’re ready for you), there are figures like Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and David Bowie, among numerous others, who don’t pass into the next realm within office hours. In one moving sequence, writer Bruce Weber talks about how he cold-called all the Wallaces in Champaign, Illinois, upon the suicide of David Foster Wallace, and how he thought with the sudden death there was a need to discuss the personal afflictions that impacted the author’s life.
Although the film clocks in at 95 minutes, Obit doesn’t move beyond the New York Times‘ own newsroom, or delve too deeply into how digital journalism might impact this editorial feature when the news of a celebrity death spreads like wildfire long before the Gray Lady goes to print. Why has the Times decided to devote a whole department, albeit a small one, to obituaries, when other publications have not, and how will they be sustained in the future? These questions aren’t addressed, although the limitations of the obituary writer’s work are visualized.
Gould spends some time with Jeff Roth, the lone full-time archivist left in the “morgue” which was once run by 30 people. Clad in white shoes, sporting a tie, and with a wry perspective on his place as the last man standing in a Kafkaesque world of arcane filing cabinet systems packed with folders brimming with clips and photographs, he deserves his own spin-off series. His segments also show what would be lost if the obituaries stop, as the archives of the Times are able to illuminate lives that might otherwise be overlooked, such as Jack Kinzler. The NASA engineer basically saved the Skylab program through some ingenuity with a parasol-type device, and when the Times got the notice of this seemingly mythic claim, they were able to back it up with archival clips.
“It’s one last chance to make the dead live again,” writer William Grimes says of their job. And Obit is a film that argues for the importance of this narrative resurrection. Whatever shape obituary writers take in the future, there is this public need to reflect on lives that impacted our world, and consider what their absence will mean.