Obit: The Nostalgia of Death

*** (out of 4)

When it comes to selecting a career, the post of obituary writer probably isn’t anywhere even close to the top of your list. It lacks the prestige and name recognition of a job as a critic or columnist…and given what the position entails, you wouldn’t think it exactly invigorating. Yet as anyone who even glances at the back page of The Economist soon realizes, good obit writers easily defy the stereotypically morbid limits of their genre – to the point that they’re often more fun to read than anything else in whatever publication they’re working for. In many ways, a well-written tribute to a dead person can be the exact opposite of what you’d expect: an unabashed celebration of life.

In its best moments, Obit, a Page One-esque documentary about the obit writers at The New York Times, succeeds in translating the surprising vibrancy of the obit-writing world to the screen. Director Vanessa Gould spends a fair amount of time following and interviewing said writers as they go through the process of composing new obits – coffee breaks, writer’s block, and all – but along the way, she also decides to insert archival footage of all the dead figures the writers have eulogized throughout their careers. The resulting mélange of interviews and history forms a nostalgia-inducing, one-of-a-kind rerun of the twists and turns of the 20th century, where famous people like David Foster Wallace and Michael Jackson butt up against lesser-known talents like the rower John Fairfax and the stunt pilot Elinor Smith. By the end of it, you can easily see why obituary writers enjoy their work so much: as one of them puts it, death allows you to really see “the arcs of lives,” the diverging but equally fascinating paths that different people took to end up changing the world for the better.

This message and the aforementioned footage both ensure that you’ll remain engrossed for the entirety of Obit’s 1.5-hour running time. Unfortunately, there’s not much else to be said in this documentary’s favor – largely because Gould eventually overplays her hand and tries to deal with too many ideas at once. There’s stuff about mortality in the brief segments where the writers note that they’re inevitably made to think about the meaning of death. There’s stuff about our instinctive, Homeric desire to be remembered properly in the moments when the writers describe the angry phone calls they get after committing factual errors. There’s stuff about how our attitude towards death has changed over time in a scene where one writer reads an exceedingly euphemistic obituary from the 1930s.  And then there’s the usual stuff about writing against deadlines in a 24/7 media cycle. Gould could’ve imparted something meaningful if she had chosen to zero in on one or two of these themes – but since she stubbornly insists on trying to discuss everything, Obit rarely ends up moving past superficial generalities.

Still, this isn’t to say that Obit is worthless. Watching it is very much like reading the morning paper. Eventually, you’ll turn the page and move on with life – but in the moment, you find yourself reacting with spontaneous bursts of joy, sadness, and anger. Gould may not hit on anything particularly profound, but she does give you a reminder that life has more splendor and beauty in it than frazzled, Wall-Street-or-bust tiger parents would make you think. And that’s something worth appreciating.


Obit (2016)

Running Time: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Unrated.

Produced by: Vanessa Gould, Caitlin Mae Burke, Katrina vanden Heuvel

Directed by: Vanessa Gould