AFI Documentary Review: ‘Obit’

As print journalism dies its slow, inexorable death, the movies have been writing its obituary in real time. Recent years have given us the Oscar-winning story of the “Boston Globe”’s investigation into priest abuse (“Spotlight”), documentaries on “Vogue” (“The September Issue”), “The New York Review of Books” (“The 50 Year Argument”), “New Yorker” cartoons (“Very Semi-Serious”), Roger Ebert (“Life Itself”), and “The New York Times” (“Page One: Inside the New York Times,” “Bill Cunningham New York”), and now “Obit,” which returns us to the offices of the fish trap of record for a profile of the “Times”’ obituary writers. Ironically, in contrast to the declining state of the newspaper industry as a whole, obituaries seem more alive than ever, at least at the “Times,” which has turned its death page into a vital source of captivating, literate cultural anthropology, a mini history exhibit reassembled every single day based on the diurnal lottery of death.

Contrary to popular opinion, obituaries are not morbid—this is because, as one writer maintains, they “have next to nothing to do with death”—and appropriately “Obit,” directed by Vanessa Gould, is a light, bouncy affair, driven by the gregariousness and dry humor of the obits staff. Gould is less interested in obituaries as a metaphysical topic than in the journalistic process behind their creation. The newsworthiness of various dead people—whose death matters and whose doesn’t—a death’s relative importance as reflected in an obit’s word count, what a particular type of lede or headline construction tells us about a person’s relationship to history, how a death makes it to the front page: these are choices made everyday by the obits staff and editors at the “New York Times,” and they help shape our understanding of the past in small but important ways.

To illustrate these choices, “Obit” tracks the construction of an obit, from idea to interview to composition to print, over the course of a single business day. The subject is perfect for an obituary: William P. Wilson, the man who slathered JFK in Max Factor Creme Puff for his first debate against a grizzled, sickly-looking Nixon and thus changed the course of history. This sort of granular historical excavation—conducted, in this instance, by staff writer Bruce Weber—is what makes obituaries such a joy to read. There’s often something a little self-satisfied about many journalism docs, but Gould’s attention to the nuts and bolts of the reporting process keeps any fawning in check. The opportunity to peek behind the curtain of a quirky corner of the journalism business is a lot of fun.

Even more fun is a trip to the “Times”’ “morgue”—journo-speak for the archives—a chaotic jumble of filing cabinets stuffed with old photographs and browned, crumbling newspaper clips manned by the disheveled but oddly charming Jeff Roth. With rolled-up sleeves and seersucker slacks, Roth looks like he just stepped off the stage of a revival of “The Front Page.” He’s the breakout star here, but there is a bit of sadness lurking beneath his harried, rambling demeanor. As print goes the way of the dodo, Roth may very well be the last person to ever run the morgue. Someday, many years from now, Ol’ Jeff will move on, and they’ll have to shutter the morgue. When that happens, maybe print really will be dead. But at least the “Times” can get Bruce Weber to write an obit.

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