Obit. movie poster

Vanessa Gould’s documentary look at the obituary department of the New York Times in action is as deceptive in tone as it is perceptive in vision. A strange air of calm rumination pervades the account, even as we watch a group of consummate professionals go through their daily, panic-inducing routine of finding out who died, figuring out who’s newsworthy, puling clips and photos from the paper’s labyrinthine and comically understaffed archives, interviewing loved ones, gaining “command of [the deceased’s] life, work, and historical significance,” weaving “a seductive historical spell” for an increasingly distractable reader that gets its facts right and doesn’t blow its “one chance to do justice to a life and make the dead live again,” and then pitching it for editorial consideration. She achieves this unlikely tranquility by frequent cutaways to the writers themselves as they discuss their particular brand of journalism, and to their invariably engaging subjects. They’re not all movers and makers of worlds, but even the minor figures are lent significance by the way their stories are told. (Go ahead and Google “John Fairfax badass obit” for the story of a professional adventurer who lived the bejesus out of life before he passed on — sorry, died. The Times doesn’t go in for euphemism.) That’s the real subject here: storytelling, the creation of a stylish, authoritative record of “how the world got to be the way it is.” One more thing to miss about newspapers when they go. 2017.

Matthew Lickona

This movie is not currently in theaters.

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