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Documentary 'Obit' Delivers Lively Stories About Death

Kino Lorber

Obit is a great idea for a movie, and most wonderfully, the film fulfills its promise. It is not a grim movie obsessed by death. As Times obituary writer Margalit Fox says near the top of the picture, New York Times obituaries don't dwell on death, they focus on life. The Times obituaries offer a chronicle of lives lived, and from many of them, you get a sense of the fabulous range of human achievement, experience, behavior and interest.

Life summaries of people like Martin Luther King Jr., the children’s book writer Maurice Sendak, the murdered John F. Kennedy or musician Gil Scott-Heron may be obvious. But the list of the unobvious is fascinating. John Fairfax crossed first the Atlantic and then the Pacific, in a rowboat, all by himself. Richard James invented the Slinky.

Obit is about newspapers themselves and how they work. We're enamored by the relentless stream of digital invention, and all the lovely entrancing gadgets. But those countless electronic ons and offs aren't permanent; they're not solid enough to keep secure the record of human lives.

Obit goes into what's called the morgue at The New York Times, the place where the Times stores an actual paper clipping of every single article ever printed in the newspaper. Many of you probably don’t read newspapers, but they are still the great repository of our history.

And a storehouse like this allows for surprises that can be found from the actual world instead of the digital. As the overseer of the Times morgue points out, researchers know that the best discoveries don't come from what you look for -- it's what you come across when you're not looking for it that shakes the world. He shows a photo he found while he was looking for something else of the folk singer and activist Pete Seeger when he was 2 years old.

Credit Kino Lorber

The interviews with Times obituary writers take place mostly in their cubicles or offices, generally drab locations, and watching someone peck away at their computer keyboard is not an exciting sight. It's also not thrilling to watch and listen to writer Bruce Weber on the phone gathering information about someone who died the day before or even that morning. But the pictures and film clips of the deceased are thrilling. And out of those nondescript places come lively stories of the parade of humanity, stories of lives that affected the world, created with talent and imagination by these writers. Weber struggles for hours to figure out a lead for a story – should he start with the basic facts, or begin the story with a playful anecdote and name the person in the third paragraph? How does the writer identify what a person’s contribution is? It’s a complex job to write a good obituary. Writer John Pareles listened to Michael Jackson’s music all day as a guide to shape his essay.

Obituaries are not biographies; they mainly isolate and frame the person’s achievement -- the contributions blues singer B.B. King made to American culture; the crucial role played by William P. Wilson, a television consultant who advised John Kennedy at his first TV debate against Richard Nixon, and maybe got Kennedy elected; Irving Cohen, known as King Cupid of the Catskills for his matchmaking skills at the famed Jewish resort, The Concord Hotel; and Marshall Lytle, the eccentric bass player of Bill Haley and the Comets.

Obit is great fun. Images run on screen of the subjects of obits in their lives, giving speeches, performing, playing in swimming pools, flying airplanes: a joyous, smiling Marilyn Monroe; Harry Truman at the piano; Humphry Bogart and Lauren Bacall together in a brief color home movie; Michael Jackson as a kid with his family and then as the electric adult performer he became; the lone oceanic rower coming ashore, greeted by a woman very glad to see him. The movie gives an endlessly entertaining sampler of who we are, and for better and worse, what we've done.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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