Who died today?
That’s an ordinary question, when posed by people of a certain age as they open their morning papers — print edition, of course — looking for people they may know in the obituaries. It’s quite a different one when asked by the editorial obituary writers at the New York Times. Vanessa Gould’s documentary “Obit” explores the inner workings of that paper’s obituaries desk, in immensely satisfying, cinéma vérité style.
It is fair to note that her documentary is also, more or less, a valentine. Gould doesn’t dwell on mistakes or suss out office intrigue. She merely watches people, whose work she obviously admires, as they do it. That uncritical approach doesn’t make her film any less watchable.
“Obit” celebrates a host of old-fashioned things: the sharpening of skills; attention to detail; correcting mistakes; institutional memory; and, briefly, typewriters.
Among the obit writers followed by Gould, who began her project in 2012, are such current and former Times reporters as Margalit Fox, Bruce Weber, Paul Vitello, William Grimes and Douglas Martin. We see them leafing through old clippings, scribbling notes as they talk by phone to the newly bereaved, reading excerpts of past obits they’ve composed — one about a fellow who rowed across oceans, another about a typewriter repair man who never succumbed to the lure of computers — and struggling over new ones. Their subjects include a 1960s ad man who made edgy TV commercials and a consultant who helped John F. Kennedy look better than Richard M. Nixon on those famous televised debates.
Not that long ago, as the reporter Weber notes, the obit department was seen as “a kind of Siberia,” a way station for reporters on their way to retirement. Gould’s film, however, captures writers who have worked for several sections of the paper, yet remain at the top of their game as they chronicle lives of significance. Not good lives, necessarily, but memorable ones.
“Being a worthy person, or a virtuous person, does not make you a newsworthy person,” obituaries desk editor Bill McDonald explains. The reason for a Times editorial obituary must be that a life “had an impact of one sort or another.” That goes for such players on the world stage as Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Richard James, the inventor of the Slinky.
When famous people die unexpectedly, or under tragic circumstances — e.g., Michael Jackson, Prince, Robin Williams, David Foster Wallace — the obit writer, with no advance piece ready, has to scramble. Jon Pareles, the Times’s chief pop music critic, recalls disappearing into an office for three hours after Jackson’s sudden death, ultimately emerging, slightly the worse for wear, with the obit. Weber recalls learning from Wallace’s family that the writer had committed suicide.
Some of the film’s most piquant scenes occur in the paper’s photo and clippings library (or “morgue”), a few blocks from the newsroom. Jeff Roth, the nattily dressed, slightly eccentric archivist and guardian of that dungeon, leads the camera past canyons of ancient file cabinets and card catalogues. Gould revisits Roth a few times, each one offering a choice digression about the treasures in the morgue.
“Obit” has many grace notes, including lightning-quick animated montages (by Andrew Roberts and Kristin Bye) made with old clippings and newsreel footage. They are always germane and never pretentious. Ben Wolf’s cinematography, Joel Goodman’s score and Bye’s editing quietly blend to give “Obit” a sense of artistic completeness.
In her 2008 documentary “Between the Folds,” Gould showed modern origami artists at work folding paper. She has a clear affinity for people who dedicate themselves to a discipline, however arcane. It is fascinating to watch the writers in “Obit” strive to do right by their subjects, warts and all.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains occasional crude language. 95 minutes.
Bruce Weber will participate in Q&As after the following screenings: 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday. The Saturday Q&A will be moderated by Washington Post obits editor Adam Bernstein.