Writing a life story
Here’s a file with a name you’ve never seen before; now you have to find the story of her or his life and write it up—let’s say 500 words—in the next seven hours. No wonder Margalit Fox, an obituarist at the New York Times, says she feels terror every workday. She and her life-after-death-writing colleagues are the subjects of Obit, which has its moments of colour, pathos and insight.
Vanessa Gould’s film zips us between job-shadowing the paper’s obit writers (confirming cause of death, poring over clippings, thrashing out the lede paragraph) and some newsprint eulogies. There was that “expert on exotic chickens” or the “underwater cartographer.” We discover who John Fairfax was, hear about a match-making maître d’ at a Catskills hotel, learn about an exotic dancer who knew Jack Ruby, and find out the bass player for “Rock Around the Clock” had a hog butcher for a father. These snippets of newsworthy (usually American) lives may make you start wondering a little more about people. (For instance, obit writer Bruce Weber has two fingers on his right hand, while the caretaker of the Times “morgue” of file clippings has one finger on his right hand …)
Still, while the obit department may no longer be the “Siberia” to which a paper’s out-of-favour journalists are exiled, fact-checking, corrections, Page One round-table meetings, even the paper’s oldest advance-obit, are only so interesting. Fox comes off a tad affected and grandiose, and the structure’s constant shifts between current writers and past write-ups makes for a, oh, bitty narrative. What’s best are the fine print details: reflecting the deceased’s qualities by, say, penning a piece about author David Foster Wallace’s demise with jots of his maximalist style; musings about fate versus freewill (though such quirks and quiddities would be better teased out by someone like Errol Morris); the sudden pressure to “cobble together” the life story of someone famous who’s died unexpectedly. And there’s a fireworks-like finale where a rush of lives comprising the last American century bursts along. In the end, though, while it’s worth a flip-through, Obit doesn’t merit an above-the-fold headline.