*** (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. Continue reading
**** (out of 4)
Towards the end of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a new “biopic” of the poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), there’s a shot in which Dickinson is shown lying on her bed. The mood is not a relaxed one; she’s just been struck by a debilitating series of seizures, and in the next scene, she’ll end up passing away for good. What’s striking about this moment, however, is the combination of the anguish on Dickinson’s face, the foreshortened way her legs stand out in the foreground, and the way the bed fills the center of the frame: taken together, the whole image provides a very close imitation of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s famous depiction of a dead Jesus in Cristo morto. It’s almost as though Dickinson, like Christ, has reached some form of transcendence through death.
Alas, if there’s just one thing Davies’ take on Dickinson teaches you, it’s that this transcendence is only attained after a lifetime of emotional and spiritual agony. Continue reading
** ½ (out of 4)
Like countless movies before it, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman makes use of a “story within a story” device: the main characters, a married couple named Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), star in an Iranian production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. What at first distinguishes the film from preceding users of said device, however, is that its larger story initially doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what Miller wrote. Continue reading