Saturday, June 17, 2017


The Martha's Vineyard Film Center screened the documentary Obit this week. It was reassuring to learn that my long-held fascination and daily habit of reading obituaries is shared by many.

Director Vanessa Gould quickly dispels widely held judgments and fears about obituaries. Though the word obit comes from the Latin word obitus for death and ruin, obituaries are much more about life than death. Gould takes you inside the newsroom at The New York Times where the paper's team of obit writers explain their craft of "storytelling" through cinema verite interviews.

They start with the basics. An obit's lede covers the who, what, where, and when. Its second paragraph explains the cause of death, along with the confirmation source, a requirement since the NYT mistakenly published an obit about a still-living Russian ballerina. The majority of an obit tells the story of a life, within word-count ranges of 400 to 15,000 words, which was the length of Pope John Paul II's obit.

The team at the Times says their obits aren't always news as much as newsworthy. For example, obit writer Bruce Weber is shown preparing an obituary about William P. Wilson. Who? Wilson was newsworthy because he applied Max Factor Creme Puff makeup on JFK before his historic first televised debate with Richard Nixon. An estimated 77 million Americans watched the debate which most believe put Kennedy on the trajectory to victory, albeit by a margin of one-tenth of one percent. Interestingly, those who listened to the debate on the radio thought Nixon won. Weber watches a black and white video of the debate, and ad-libs majestically about Kennedy's trim suit, poise, tan, and charm; and then sniggers about Nixon's shifty eyes, flop sweat, and ill-fitting suit.

Most of the interview segments with Weber are shot at his desk, except for a couple of trips to the coffee machine to help with deadlines. There is no small irony that Keith Richards' memoir, aptly titled Life, sits on his desk. Part of Richards' rock and roll lore was his prodigious appetite for drugs and alcohol which put him at the top of the "rockers most likely to die" list for many years. He's now 73.

Also interviewed is the irreplaceable (and irrepressible) Jeff Roth, the white buck-shoed researcher in the Times' morgue, a pre-Internet archive of files stuffed with yellowed clippings and photographs, including "advances" - the files on the famous and infamous that are maintained until death.

The New York Times ~ Jeff Roth

Here's the NYT's review on Obit.

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