Obit, 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, pulling 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, highly personal record of “how the world got to be the way it is.” One more thing to miss about newspapers when they go.
Matthew Lickona: Do you read obituaries?
Vanessa Gould: I do now, but I didn’t before making this film. While I was making my last film, one of my subjects died of lung cancer, sort of in the prime of his life. He was an unknown, struggling, reclusive artist living outside of Paris and working in the unusual medium of paper, and I think he was on the cusp of receiving some due recognition, which was the only thing he sought in life. Besides my personal sadness, I got this panicked feeling about an artistic life being cut short, the ideas the he would take into the grave. So I contacted 12 or 15 English-language newspapers, just announcing his death, and Margalit Fox of the New York Times was the one person who called me. She was asking me some basic questions about his early life, and I didn’t know the answers, and I wasn’t able to get some of them. I got this incredibly vivid feeling of how quickly the facts of history slip through our fingers, and I started to see how obituaries are a mechanism for catching the details of people’s lives. I started looking at them every day and saw that they were also, to some degree, a catalogue of our contemporary culture. And every single one sort of looked like it could be a film. That’s how I started reading them.
ML: The writers describe a shift from a very dry, just-the-facts, almost somber style for obituaries to something that seeks to illuminate, educate, and even entertain. But they don’t say why it happened or how.
VG: I can’t give a really firm answer, but people are drawn to really great storytelling. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a guy at the Times named Alden Whitman who wrote obituaries for the great figures of the mid-20th Century: Picasso, Churchill. He had a real flair, and he often interviewed subjects for their own obituaries, which was a new and daring tactic. I think he might have been the first in terms of making obituaries more editorial or journalistic. And then, 10 or 15 years later, there was a writer named Robert McG. Thomas who got sent to the Times’ obituary desk out of punishment. He had too much restlessness on the other beats. And he started writing obituaries about unusual people who had what he called “great yarns.” The guy who accidentally invented kitty litter; the pilot “Wrong Way” Corrigan. They were terrific, fun, sassy stories, and the readership ate them up. I think he demonstrated that there was interest, and I think [today’s writers] found latitude in that. Margalit is an amazing stylist; she can handle the eccentric like no one else.
ML: There’s a great line from one of the writers about how you go looking for something in a story and you always end up finding something else, and the something else you find is better than what you were looking for. Did that happen to you in making this film?
VG: Yes. By way of research before interviewing the writers, I would read their entire body of obituary writing. It was the natural thing to do, but it took a couple of weeks for each one. I went into those meetings with a long list of the obituaries that I thought were the most exciting or compelling to me, and I don’t think a single one of them made it into the film after talking to the writers and finding out which ones were most memorable to them, or had the most interesting stories behind them. It’s not easy for them to remember what they do on any given day; it’s this extreme process of immersion and purging in order to come in the next day with a clean slate. Often, they don’t remember which obituaries they’ve written. So when they did remember somebody, I knew there was something special there. The one about the guy who was a [Jewish] matchmaker in the Catskills — that’s one that would never have come onto my radar, but when you hear Margalit read the lead paragraph, and when you look at those photos…. It’s just a wonderful little story.
ML: Near the very end of the film, you include a dense and dizzying montage of historical images, many of which go by too quickly to be properly perceived. Why did you include that?
VG: We weren’t trying to do anything expressly specific; it’s sort of open to interpretation. But I’m willing to give mine. Over the course of making the film, we accumulated so much cultural stuff through the reading of these obituaries. The past was sort of illuminated by all these stories — people, events, even consumer products. It was this pointillistic picture of the past that came to life by looking back at all this stuff. My editor Kristin Bye and I felt that the film didn’t really express that in its totality, and we wanted to end it on a vital, vigorous, energetic note. Time just barrels by, quicker and quicker, and I think people know the feeling of time passing quickly. We were just playing around with [representing] that visually.