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Doc Corner: 'Obit'

By Glenn Dunks

An observation made towards the start of Vanessa Gould’s Obit: despite the reputation as the reporting of death, most obituaries are only 10% about the death of an individual. The other 90% is about life. How a person lived it, what they did, where they went and how they go there.

That's an appropriate anecdote to lead with given how turned off people may be about a film set within the supposedly dreary old world of an obituary department in a physical news outlet like the New York Times.

It’s a nice thought from a film whose prime subjects are not dead and are in fact living...

What a missed opportunity it is then that Obit never gives these men (and one woman; Margalit Fox, the film’s MVTH*) of the necrology** desk the sort of historical tribute that they offer the famous and the noteworthy day-in-day-out. We watch these journalists talk about the responsibilities of obit reporting and how important it is that these people should be remembered for the mark they chose to make on the world, yet we learn not a single thing about them until the closing credits. By their own admission, it is unlikely they will get their names printed on the occasion of their death. What a treat it would have been, then, to find out just a bit more about how they have lived, what they have done, where they went, and how they got there.

But then Obit is a curious film in ways just like that. On a few occasions it has the air of a film made because somebody had an idea and an ability to make it happen, without more than a second thought as to what they wanted to say and how to say it. It's worth noting that that's the opposite of the writer's process periodically seen in the film. It belies its subject matter by flitting about with a deliberate lightness of touch, rarely digging particularly deep on the subject of what it means to do what these people do beyond some clichéd slogans and largely unexciting editing of the footage. But, in its favor, it also resists the urge to be just a succession of grief porn pressure points about famous people.

Obit is at its best in anecdotal mode, spotlighting lesser-known individuals like of William P. Wilson (JFK’s television consultant), Elinor Smith (pioneering female aviator), and John Fairfax (first to row solo across the oceans). Your Bowies and your Princes and your Carrie Fishers are shown in archive photos for audiences to point at with recognition, but it shows at least some respect for the audience to not milk the celebrities for easy narrative mileage. Michael Jackson is given the most attention if only for the unfortunate circumstances of the other famous person who died that very day (Farrah Fawcett). Many significant celebrity deaths like Princess Diana or Heath Ledger go entirely unmentioned.

It certainly works better as a film than Page One: Inside the New York Times by mere virtue of being about something as rarely considered as an obituary department. Even if the directors of both took their relatively unrestrained access to the NYT as a reason to offer little in the way of style or personality. To be sure, Obit isn’t a film that strays from the conventional path. One of the film’s subjects notes that any good researcher knows the best information usually comes when looking for something else entirely -- the tugging at a proverbial loose thread which then unravels an unknown world. Director Gould never seizes upon any such moment here. As a film, it wouldn’t make the front page.

* Most Valuable Talking Head
** That’s the real word for it!

Release: New York City tomorrow with more national dates in LA, SF, DC, Chicago, San Diego, Philadelphia, SLC to follow throughout May. Should prove a curiosity on streaming services later.

Oscar Chances: Too weightless for that.

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Reader Comments (1)

sad to read that you were underwhelmed by this. I thought the topic was so brilliant. But it's true that a lot of docs have great concepts and hope that does the execution work for them.

April 26, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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