Monday, July 24, 2017

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016)

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) movie poster
"Obits have next to nothing to do with the death and absolutely everything to do with the life." - Margalit Fox
 
Classic film enthusiasts are well-acquainted with obituaries. The deaths of our beloved stars are a common occurrence. When someone dies we take the time to reflect on their life. Reading obits on and offline is one of the ways we celebrate the life and mourn the loss. When I first started this blog I always knew that I didn't want to write obits. At first I would post little tributes instead with just a few words and a picture or two. Even then it became too much and I abandoned the practice. I have the utmost respect for those who regularly write obits even more so now that I watched the new documentary Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016).


Directed by Vanessa Gould, Obit. takes a deep dive into the work by the obit team at The New York Times. Talking heads include current and former obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin, Paul Vitello, their boss William McDonald as well archivist Jeff Roth and various others who contribute to the The New York Times obits.

Newspaper obit writers are a dying breed. Once considered to be the most boring section of a newspaper, today's writers have breathed new life into this form of journalism. The New York Times obit team focuses on writing pieces that educate, illuminate and entertain. They capture the essence of a life while also telling the reader an enthralling story. While they try to do justice to a life there is also the need for impartiality. These writers are not afraid to explore the negatives along with the positives. There is a keen eye on research. Obit writers race against the clock to pull together as much information as they can in a short amount of time. This means calling family members of the deceased, speed reading clips that are pulled from The New York Times' "Morgue" and using other resources to build the skeleton of the obit. Then there are the creative minds of these writers whose talent for the written word weave the tales of lives well-lived or not at all.

Scene from Obit. Photo source: Kino Lorber


One minute into Obit. and I was hooked. I was utterly fascinated by the process of researching and writing an obit. Viewers follow the writers on a typical day at the office but we also get to hear about some of their previous work too. The position of an obit writer used to be the lowest rung on the totem pole of a newspaper; a job relegated to someone on their way out. I get the sense that while The New York Times obit team isn't one of the top departments it is still respected.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure to be as prepared as you can, knowing that you'll never be prepared." - William McDonald


We get a peak at how the obit team pitches for a page one piece (either a top story or a "refer", a call out to the obit section on the bottom of the front page). Viewers get to see the "Morgue" where decades worth of news clippings arranged by subject and subject matter. There are insights on how photographs are selected, how the length of obits are decided on and how they approach advances, obits written ahead of a person's death. There is also a spotlight on individual obits for figures like adventurer John Fairfax, author David Foster Wallace, Marshall Lytle of Bill Haley and the Comets, stunt pilot Elinor Smith, actress Farrah Fawcett and singer Michael Jackson. These were fascinating and we learn quite a bit about the process.

Archivist Jeff Roth in the "Morgue" - Photo source: Kino Lorber


I was hoping this documentary had more classic film related figures but alas it did not. The only person mentioned was Elizabeth Taylor who's obit was a big deal for the team. There are some clips of movie stars like Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe but none are focused on. I think it's still worth the time of classic film fans to watch this documentary especially if you're like me and read obituaries on a regular basis.

Obit. Life on a Deadline (2016) is an illuminating and informative documentary on the writers who give the recently deceased one final send-off. This is a must-see!





Obit. (2016) will be available from Kino Lorber on DVD and Blu-Ray on August 1st. You can pre-order the movie by using the buy links below.


Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray to review!

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