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Every culture has a yardstick for how a person has lived a life and for the powerful and creative people of the 20th and 21st centuries, that yardstick has been whether you get an obituary in America's "paper of record," The New York Times.
In the fascinating and touching documentary "Obit," director Vanessa Gould profiles the people who decide who is worthy of that honor. In the process, Gould reveals some of the idiosyncrasies of the Times, journalism and life itself.
In talking to the writers and editors of the Times' Obituaries Desk, Gould delves into the many arcane rules for having one's life and death noted in the Times. It's not enough to have lived a good life after all, Pope John Paul II and Saddam Hussein both got write-ups. Nor is it enough to be famous, since the Times has profiled such lesser-known people as the man who invented the Slinky.
No, the main criterion for having the Times write an obituary is whether it's newsworthy which is a fancy journalistic way to say, "Does it make a good story?"
Of course, there are other details to consider. Obituaries Editor William McDonald talks about word count, whether an obituary lands on the front page or not, and how reliant the paper is on photo archives. This leads Gould into the Times' "morgue," a cluttered room with filing cabinets packed with clippings of the great and near-great, lovingly tended by an eccentric clerk, Jeff Roth, who has had the job since 1993 and serves as the Times' institutional memory and card catalog.
It's in the "morgue" where the Times keeps its deepest, darkest secret: the file of some 1,700 prewritten obituaries for world leaders and legends who will meet their end one of these years. The advance obits are kept under lock and key, lest their contents be divulged before the subject of one of them dies.
Gould gets the Times staffers to talk about their triumphs and mistakes, and which obituaries were the most interesting to them. (Writing up Michael Jackson's career with three hours before deadline was challenging, they say.) But to truly document the process, Gould follows one of the obituary writers, Bruce Weber (who has since left the Times), as he researches an obituary in this case, for William P. Wilson, an advisor to John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign and, Weber finds, the first expert on creating a political image on TV.
Gould follows Weber's process, which includes a detailed questionnaire, a long phone call to Wilson's widow, watching the first Kennedy/Nixon debate on C-Span, drinking several cups of coffee, and negotiating with McDonald about the article's length and style.
The stuff Gould captures in "Obit" is catnip to newspaper folk like me. But for anyone interested in writing, or creativity in general, this documentary is a beautiful window into how any artist goes from nothing to something in this case, from a blank screen to prose that celebrates someone's life.
A sharp, warm-hearted documentary about the fine art of writing obituaries for The New York Times.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, May 19.
Rating • Not rated, but probably PG-13 for language.
Running time • 93 minutes.