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Afterlife stories

Death becomes a voyeuristic journey in Obit

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In the documentary feature Obit, director Vanessa Gould takes us on an intimate tour of the editorial process behind The New York Times' obituary section. Given the state of our continually shrinking newspaper industry, the Times' obituary department remains surprisingly large and prestigious. It's at least as big as the entire Independent newsroom, for some context. The men and women behind the obits are, as you would expect, eloquent, smart and a tad eccentric.

In Obit, we meet the department's editor, William McDonald, along with writers Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Paul Vitello and others. In the film's opening scenes, writer Bruce Weber talks on the phone with a deceased person's family member, taking handwritten notes on the life of a former political consultant to President Kennedy. The process is deliciously old-fashioned, which is fun for a minute but had me a little worried. Do we really need another documentary dripping in nostalgia for the glory days of print journalism? Thankfully, the picture doesn't dwell too much on the changing face of and/or the economic state of the industry. (If you're looking for something like that, try the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times.) Obit is more comfortably classified as a voyeuristic journey into the often monotonous procedure that goes into creating exuberant, life-affirming tributes. We get a lot of, "How do you spell that name?" and "How many words do you want for this one?" etc.

In between interviews and on-the-job footage of the writers and editors are old-timey headlines, photos and moving images of people who have lived extraordinary lives and are now dead. We learn about a man who spent his life crossing entire oceans in rickety boats for seemingly no reason, a guy who invented a parasol for NASA, and what it was like to report on the untimely suicide of David Foster Wallace.

In ancient times...
  • In ancient times...

Much of the observed daily toils aren't exclusive to obituary staff. I relate very much to the journalist who casually says, "I tend to sort of fall in love with the people I write about," as well as the crippling anxiety and regret that writers feel when a mistake is made in print. I only worked in the Indy newsroom for a few months more than five years ago, but I still remember every angry letter and email. (Example: It's Higgins Avenue, not street, dammit.)

The film has a few notable pitfalls. It can be a tad precious about the heroism of its journalists, for one. Oh my gosh, Michael Jackson died at 3 p.m. and I had to write the story in four hours. (I'm paraphrasing.) I mean, whatever, deadlines are hard. Secondly, there's not much of a story arc here, so unless you're coming into this with an above average interest in journalism, proceed with caution. Overall, this is a competently made, elegant and insightful film that celebrates life and writing far more than it languishes in the tragedies of death.

The Big Sky Film series hosts a screening of Obit at the Crystal Wed., Sept. 21, at 6 PM as part of the Montana Book Festival. A Q&A with director Vanessa Gould follows. Free.

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