Obit attempts to convince its audience of the magic of its subjects — New York Times obituary writers. As one of these writers puts it, “Obits in the twenty-first century can be just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects.” Though some of the lives these writers get to revive are daring, mysterious and enthralling it is more the power of the individuals that died than those wielding the pen. Obit is informative to an extent but if you’re looking for a Sorkin-level media romp I’d recommend you look elsewhere.
What is an obit? Director Vanessa Gould lets the writers speak for themselves. Though the answer is not as divisive as others, there are still misconceptions related to the field. There’s an expectation that obituaries are serious, daunting, morbid and boring. One writer says it’s often addressed like “a kind of Siberia” where at one time a writer could be banished to a writer’s jail. Aside from these initial distinctions there’s little to keep the audience’s attention.
The film is awkwardly structured and more than a little meandering. There is good stuff here, but no real sense of story. Day-in-the-life sections often feel placed as filler. There are sprinkles of sound bites that are cut and cut and cut together like they were hacking at an apple tree.
There is a particularly unnecessary section concerning a staff member in charge of the obituary clippings. Despite the sequence also feeling like filler, it is an acceptable treat. Aside from providing backstory on how these writers get their research, he also serves a purpose for comic relief. He’s a little zany, a little contradictory, and witty. I would have watched a whole movie with him. In contrast the actual subjects — the obit writers — are closed-off and self-serious. Though the clippings man takes his job seriously, he’s not afraid to let loose and come to play. It was a much needed diversion.
The use of archival footage is distinctly different than others in its effects. It is also the greatest reflection of the themes hiding deep down in the film. A majority of the archival footage was unrelated to the actual topics discussed in the voice overs and talking heads. Yet the film is about history — specifically building someone’s history — sometimes out of nothing. In much the same way, Obit’s editor Kristin Bye brings together the perspective of the writers themselves through the images placed before us. It’s as if we’re going through these clippings and family photos in search of meaning in the same way these writers must.
The concept of the living reflecting on the dead, bringing them back to life through their stories and legends, is the basis of our human evolution. Yet this film is unable to hit at even the surface of this thematic iceberg. It attempts to gain interest through discussions of controversy. It comes off more as an attempt by the director and editor to create depth where there is none. In doing so the controversies reflect the basic “politics” of any newsroom — the main ones being the entertainment versus cultural/historical importance and the issues of white men being the prime obituary candidates. It’s the same issue facing any media outlet, but instead of addressing one of these matters in full, both are glossed over in two or three minute sound bites.
Despite it’s failings, Obit made me want to live my life to the fullest, but didn’t make me appreciate the documentary’s subjects any more than I appreciate any journalist or writer. They aren’t portrayed as geniuses, though the audience is constantly being told they are. We see little of their work, but primarily hear them talking about their work. It’s like a less interesting Spotlight — lots of sitting at desks and writer’s blocks.
Unlike Spotlight the results are less than demanding. Instead, they draw you back in with countless name drops — Michael Jackson, David Foster Wallace, etc. — in hopes of reminding you that these people touch greatness. It doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on them. It must be noted, however, that the film makes a decent enough argument that these writers are, in some way, restoring what is left of those that leave us. Such a selfless act, requiring as much skill and emotional weight as it does, deserves a lot more than this.
The uneventful nature of the film is also coupled with the fact that most of these writers don’t face a lot of obstacles in their work. It’s hard, it requires research, fact checking and being pressed for time but it doesn’t appear too different from any other news reporter or journalistic struggle. It drains the excitement of adversity from the heroes of the film. Often one’s greatest obstacle is death and, for these writers, death is their beginning and their end.