'Obit' is a compelling look at the craft of newspaper obituary writing

Gary Thompson
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
  • With Bruce Weber, Jack Kadden and William Grimes.
  • 3 stars out of 4

Most journalists stifle a laugh when we hear somebody denounce a newspaper as a product of organized conspiracy.
Because everyday we see the reality — the mistake-filled atmosphere of chaos, rancor, disagreement, systemic technological failure, desperate last-minute alteration. The paper comes out, but nobody knows how, or cares, because yet another deadline looms.
One useful attribute of the new documentary "Obit" is the way it illuminates this process. The movie literally peeks over the shoulder of reporters as they grind away on stories at 4 p.m. in advance of a 6 p.m. deadline, candidly admitting they have no idea what sort of lead paragraph they're going to use or, even more candidly, admitting they've decided to take an approach sure to be rejected by an editor, who then pops his head over the cubicle wall to confirm his probable rejection.
"Obit" limits its focus to one department — the obituary staff of the New York Times — although the department is apparently as large (there seem to be a dozen people involved) as the entire staff of many newspapers. The size is appropriate to the job at hand — the Times is the nation's paper of record, and the department's collection of writers, editors and researchers has the duty and obligation to mark the passing of newsworthy people.

"Obit," a documentary featuring the obituary staff at The New York Times, is playing at Small Star Art House June 17-22.

The documentary examines the metrics of how newsworthiness is determined. Celebrities, captains of industry, political leaders get their due, but there is room for idiosyncratic choices — reporter Bruce Weber, for instance, makes a case for a television consultant who played a key role in the famous Nixon/Kennedy television debate, and he writes a nice obituary.
"Obit" also examines the ghoulish but necessary practice of writing advance obituaries of noteworthy people who are not dead (don't take it personally, Jane Fonda), but whose lives warrant prewritten copy, just in case.
This takes us into the cavernous print archives — the so-called morgue — of the Times, manned by a lone researcher, Jeff Roth. He's the sort of amusing eccentric one finds in newsrooms, and the movie has fun looking on as Roth endeavors to explain his inexplicable filing system.
"Obit" makes the point, through its subjects, that obituaries are not as downbeat as their reputation. They are often, in fact, a celebration of life, and focus on the most productive era of a notable person's life.
True, the journalists are obligated, when called for, to provide a warts-and-all account of an infamous person. And most have been called some pretty rotten names by aggrieved family members. Weber talks of sleepless nights, kept awake by an omnipresent fear that he has made a mistake. He makes one, but there's no time for anything but a rueful sigh.
Another deadline looms.
3 out of 4 stars
Directed by Vanessa Gould.
With Bruce Weber, Jack Kadden, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, William McDonald, Jeff Roth, Margalit Fox.
Distributed by Kino Lorber.
Running time: 1 hours, 33 minutes.