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Obit. (Blu-ray Review)

21 Aug, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
Box Office $0.31 million
$29.99 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray

Not rated.

For most of newspaper history, the obituary department was a kind of dumping ground for journalists whose arteries were beginning to harden or those who’d put off management in some way without quite committing a fire-able offense. I always thought this a little strange because those articles are read; when USA Today ran my obit of Charlton Heston, it had 1,200-plus Internet “hits” in possibly than less time than it took Chuck to get to the sprouting of Genesis vegetation in one of his old Bible-reading LP’s. No review or video column of mine ever got that kind of response to my knowledge, though I suppose that if I could have filtered out NRA-type respondents to my Heston piece … maybe.

This is all a bit moot because, as Vanessa Gould’s equally illuminating and entertaining documentary on a specialized profession points out, very few publications beyond the New York Times employ full-time obit writers. At most papers, the beat reporters have to handle the deaths that occur in their respective fields on top of their regular jobs, and (speaking as one who wrote a lot of them), if there’s ever been an editor who provides adequate time to do many in advance, his/her name does not come immediately to mind. The Times obits are things of beauty, and I make a point of trying each Saturday to read the ones from the previous week’s output with built-in meaning to me. But after seeing Obit., I may try to read them all (even the ones on physicists and chamber music bassoon players). Each one you see, dictated by the judgment of Times writers and editors, represents the cream of daily possibilities.   

So here we are. Unless the subject is one of the NYT’s 1,700 advance appreciations literally locked under file cabinet and key, a writer comes in knowing that before the final “send” button is pressed, there’ll only be a limited number of hours (extra God’s Blessings go to those who die in the early a.m.) to become an instant expert on the subject. We get to observe the process here, which includes contacting survivors who are usually but not always reliable, for reasons both honest and dis-. A key basic here is to ascertain that a person really is deceased, thanks to a long-ago incident in which the writer wrote a competent piece after a bogus tip in the off-hours, when no in-the-know supervisor was around to apply the screech-halt. (Though it didn’t go so far as to be an actual obit, I seem to recall that Joey Bishop was moved to call USA Today at one point to refute the paper’s assertion that he was dead.)

The Times obits stand out because there’s a conscious attempt to make them life-affirming in a lively, non-stodgy way — in direct contrast to the howler-heavy florid prose that was stock-in-trade when our grandparents’ died — gooey stuff about angels taking the person under their wing and flying them off to God’s botanical garden or wherever. Similarly, Times policy is to use the word “died” and exclude softeners like “passed away” or “journeyed to the other side” or “met her maker.” In terms of obit page headlines, the lead article get the word “dies” in the headline — but not the others. The assumption is that it’s the obit pages, and that a person opening at the Copa in a couple nights likely won’t be in them.   

The stress is tremendous, and this applies to obit writing at any major publication. Even a dinky mistake and resulting correction can crush the spirits of an already exhausted reporter, and we see one writer getting in trouble here by printing “too many facts” — as when stating that the obit subject’s grandfather had been a Democratic congressman and not the correct Republican designation. (Why not just say, “Congressman”?) Unless there’s an advance obit in the files, you’re a slave to whatever art is in the photo morgue or otherwise instantly available, which can be a problem if the subject is an otherwise obscure individual known for one big thing from 40 or 50 years ago.

For me — and all others for whom obits aren’t the dominant beat — life was looking over one’s shoulder every day. First of all, you get called in off vacation to write them (Deborah Kerr was, for me, just one of several.) When you’re a Protestant on the year-end movie beat — and if you’re very lucky — Christmas Day or part of it will be the only time off you get from maybe a week before Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day (counting weekends). My behind had literally just hit the Christmas Dinner chair for 30 seconds on the last year my mother paid a visit when the paper called to report Dean Martin’s death. And even though the review had been written in advance, I traipsed upstairs at 3:15 p.m. and came down at 7:30 because one is always “polishing” copy with up-to-date quotes and wire reports. Of course, anyone who works for a major paper has this kind of thing happen all the time (think of what political reporters have been going through the past year-and-a-half). But, again, at most papers, one has to do these pieces in addition to covering your beat in daily or weekly fashion. At least in these cases, the subjects assigned are going to be in the reporter’s wheelhouse. At the Times, you have to become an instant expert on a dime, kind of like what AP writers have to do by trade.

The Times obit specialists come from all writing backgrounds, and there are welcome biographical blurbs on each of the interviewees in Obit.’s end credits. And for a largely talking-heads documentary, director Gould does a yeoman keep-it-moving job employing a flurry of montages full of deceased parties — many or most of whom made major dents on 20th and 21st-century living. Even with the frenzied editing of these, some of the split-second shots manage to be a celebration of our collective experience — or of the now vague-to-us collective experience of our parents. The effect is warm, lively and life-affirming, just as the Times obits themselves are intended to be.

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