There are two types of people in the world: those who turn to the obituaries first and everybody else. The latter wonder why the former have a preoccupation with death. The former answer that a well-turned obit can be a celebration of not only one life but life itself.
Vanessa Gould’s charming and soulful documentary “Obit” should convince the doubters and cheer those who already know. As someone who takes great pleasure in both reading and writing valedictions to the recently deceased, I can personally attest that the movie’s dead on.
It’s also a study of a peculiar and particular tribe: professional obituary writers. Gould parks her camera in a corner of The New York Times newsroom that is home to people whose bylines are as familiar as your morning toast. Bruce Weber! Margalit Fox! William Grimes! I’d say they were the Murderer’s Row of the obit world, but that might be tasteless.
“Obit” is loosely structured around a typical day in the office, with Gould returning now and again to Weber’s work on an obituary for William P. Wilson, the television consultant who prepared John F. Kennedy for the candidate’s game-changing 1960 debate with Richard Nixon. (The obit ran on Dec. 11, 2014.) The writer was handed the assignment in the morning — “I literally show up for work and say, ‘Who’s dead?’ ” Weber remarks — and he has a 6 p.m. deadline.
A call goes out to the widow; another call goes down to the Times “morgue,” where the lone and rather daffy Jeff Roth presides over a yellowing archive that once required a 30-person staff. Every bit of minutiae is checked; to Weber’s chagrin, he’ll still get one small detail wrong. “Too many facts, too many facts!” he cries.
We learn tricks of the trade: Beware of family myths; keep an eye out for the striking detail. The importance of the right “lede,” or opening paragraph, is discussed — should it be anecdotal or straight reportage? We hear the death-notice equivalent of Talmudic arguments: Who deserves to be on the front page, above or below the fold, and who deserves a “refer” at the bottom directing the reader to an inside page? Who’s worth a 600-word obit, or 800, or 1,000? (Pope John Paul II got 15,000.) Who’s famous enough to have an obit prepared in advance, sometimes decades before they die?
Gould films the journalists speaking straight to the camera from their desks at work or at home, and they come off as a thoughtful, mildly eccentric bunch. Fox has a flowery enunciation that seems affected but isn’t, and her comments are often the most far-ranging and philosophical, including this gem: “If you’re lucky, you get to interrogate Fate.”
But “Obit” also has to keep things moving even if the writers’ subjects aren’t, and so Gould fills the screen with photos and clips and jazzy montages commemorating the recent dead: Elaine Stritch, Gil Scott-Heron, Robin Williams, John Glenn, Cy Twombly, Gwen Ifill, David Bowie, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali. These are entertaining and moving even when they occasionally cross the line into too much. Above all, such segments emphasize the infinite variety of human lives and human achievements.
More intriguing — and one of the reasons the Times obituary section stands out — are the death notices for the lesser-known pioneers and newsmakers of our history: the first professional dog walker, the grandfather of cheerleading, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, the five-time Hobo King, the stripper who was Jack Ruby’s girlfriend, the inventor of the TV remote, the last survivor of Brown v. Board of Education.
Celebrating such people in print isn’t just about telling a good story about someone you’d never heard of. It prompts readers to seek and find the connections between everyone, known and unknown. It reminds us that we all make history as we go, and a good obit only stands back and reveals the who, how, when, and why. “Obit” understands the governing paradox of the trade — that these writers are modern-day resurrectionists. “You’re trying to weave a historical spell and enchant the reader and do justice to a life,” says Grimes. “It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.”
Directed by Vanessa Gould. Starring Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes. At Coolidge Corner. 95 minutes. Unrated (as PG: mortal coils shuffled off).