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A life in 800 words

Genre: Documentary
Runtime: 93 minutes
Our Rating:
Directed by: Vanessa Gould
Cast: Bruce Weber, William McDonald, Margalit Fox
Review by Jean Lowerison

“We literally show up in the morning and say ‘Who’s dead?’”

That’s former New York Times obituary writer Bruce Weber, describing the beginning of his work day in Vanessa Gould’s Obit.

If this film is any sample; obit writers are a funny group. It’s a pity people flee from them at parties. Obit takes us to the Times obituary section to meet the folks who write or have written obituaries there. Included are Bruce Weber, Jack Kadden, David Slotnick, William Grimes, William McDonald, Douglas Martin, Jeff Roth (keeper of the morgue) and the lone woman, Margalit Fox.

Obituary writing is an art, and one that the Times takes seriously. There are various ways to do it. You can settle for the “five W’s” approach (who, what, when, where and why). Or you can do what theTimes does.

The Times doesn’t aim for inclusiveness or settle for just facts; they only profile people who have left an impact of some sort on the world. Brezhnev, for example, changed the trajectory of the Soviet Union. The inventor of the Slinky also had an impact on a certain segment of the world.

Is it depressing? Not really, they say, but it’s time-consuming. You spend a lot of time on the phone, verifying the facts – you know, those five W’s. Then you have to write an obit that encapsulates who that person was and why he or she was important – in 600 words, or maybe 800 or 1000 if the person was really important. And all this on deadline.

It’s also challenging, especially if you hear about the death when you’re about to go home. That happened when they got the word of Michael Jackson’s death at about 3 p.m. The writer had about four hours to make all those phone calls and write the obit, which then became part of the cultural memory of the country (and the world).

One of the more fascinating aspects of Obit is a tour of the obit morgue, presided over by Jeff Roth. This is a room jammed with filing cabinets filled to capacity with clippings about people who have been or might be profiled someday.

Obit gives examples of people they have profiled, giving a lot of time to John Fairfax, the first person to cross the Atlantic Ocean solo in a rowboat. But that’s just a teaser. When he was 13, he moved with his mother to Argentina, where he left home to live “like Tarzan” in the jungle. And he attempted “death by jaguar,” but chickened out and shot the animal.

Or one of the last manual typewriter repairmen, of whom Margalit Fox says, “He worked on manuals lovingly, electrics grudgingly and computers not at all.”

Other subjects are the ones you’d expect – politicians, actors, singers, but all strive to tell the “why” of the person’s importance. It’s almost enough to inspire the reader to go out and do something important enough to get a New York Times editorial obit.

I’ve always thought high school English teachers should ask kids to write their own obituary. It would be a great exercise to concentrate kids’ thoughts on their future and a consideration of what they might want to accomplish as adults. Maybe they should see Obit too.

Recommended Audience:
Anyone who appreciates writing.