A light and cheery appraisal of a somber subject, Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit focuses on the writers and editors assigned to the necrology desk of The New York Times. Like other chronicles of dead-tree media made in the past decade — The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s Vogue ode (2009); Andrew Rossi’s polite Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) — Obit rarely strays from the anodyne tone of the advertorial.
Filming for a few days in December 2014 in the NYT office, Gould opens with Bruce Weber, one of her six primary interviewees, deep in reporting from his cubicle, speaking on the phone one morning to a woman who has just become a widow. The dead man is William P. Wilson, an adviser to John F. Kennedy for his 1960 televised debates with Richard Nixon. Weber dutifully works through a multipage checklist to amass basic biographical facts; to provide some putative narrative tension, Gould cuts intermittently to time-stamped segments, counting down to Weber’s 6 p.m. deadline as he shapes the raw data of Wilson’s life into one of the vivid mini-histories that typify the Times’ Obituaries section.
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Weber struggles with his first sentence for a while and grows fidgety, making frequent trips to the kitchen to get coffee, but the obituarist, like nearly everyone Gould speaks with, is sober and unflappable (and fond of pullover sweaters and sweater vests). As Weber and his colleagues discuss, often during sit-downs with Gould in their homes, the nuts and bolts of their writing — whether to start with a traditional or an anecdotal lede, which information typically goes into the second paragraph — they prove to be engaging, if not exactly revealing, interlocutors.
“We are not friends. We are not advocates. We are not grief counselors. We are reporters,” proclaims Margalit Fox, the great belletrist of the NYT’s dead pool and Obit’s most flamboyant speaker. I wish Gould had been more thorough in her reporting, digging deeper and probing her astute subjects to say more. The question of who warrants memorializing in the paper of record is never fully answered; time that could have been spent more thoroughly investigating that query is instead spent on one trip too many to the Times’ morgue, the labyrinthine repository of yellowed clippings and photos presided over by Jeff Roth.
Also underexplored: Which aspects of their subjects’ lives do the NYT obituarists leave out — or include — and why? Midway through the documentary, Fox notes that she and her cohort, who may never have imagined themselves in their current jobs but who nonetheless take great pride in what they do, have been able to “come out of the closet as obituary writers.” In at least one high-profile instance, never mentioned in Obit, a posthumous salute by Fox kept a major aspect of her subject’s life cloaked. Writing Susan Sontag’s obituary in late December 2004, the first year Fox was on the necro beat, she detailed the critic and intellectual’s brief, early marriage to Philip Rieff but made no mention of the same-sex relationships that followed. “Every single day I face down terror,” Fox says in the film, referring to the pressure of crafting rich, detail-packed biographies in a matter of hours, a strain that invariably leads to omissions. It’s the most candid disclosure in Obit — and one that culminates in a dead end.