Obit. (NR)

Documentary 93 min. April 26, 2017
By Melissa Anderson
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, 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. Weber 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 a vivid mini-history.

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 the nuts and bolts of their writing, 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. The question of who warrants memorializing in the paper of record is never fully answered; I wish Gould had been more thorough in her reporting, digging deeper and probing her astute subjects to say more.
Vanessa Gould Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Jack Kadden, Douglas Martin, Jeff Roth Kino Lorber

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