Thursday, April 27, 2017


“There’s nothing you can do about dying, I just thought I might point that out,” says New York Times Obit writer Bruce Weber in the concluding lines, shall we say the epitaph for Vanessa Gould’s Obit.—which just began a run at Film Forum. The movie concerns the writing of New York Times obits, much of the back up for which is notoriously stored in an area of The Times known as the morgue. It’s one of the many pieces of  nomenclature that makes Obit. particularly affecting. A world historical figure or a celebrity might make the front page, but next down the food chain is “the reefer,” which is what those little front page blurbs, announcing a death which will be covered on the obit page, are called. Here are some other pieces of information you might like to know. The obit using the verb is the lead obit on the page. You always want to state how, when or where someone died in paragraph two of the obit, as the failure to nail this information can lead to a situation like one to which Mark Twain once referred when he said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” It’s better when someone dies at nine in the morning as it gives the obit writer most of the day to do his or her piece. Unfortunately news about Michael Jackson’s death started to come in at around 4 PM which didn’t leave much time to create a major obit by 7 or 8 o’clock, when the paper was put to bed. Margalit Fox, another prominent Times obit writer remarks that the significance of the obit is that it “captures the person at the precise point that he or she becomes history.” Gould uses the obit of William P. Wilson, who advised John F. Kennedy to use makeup in his first debate with Nixon, to provide a unifying thread. In the beginning of Obit. Weber is on the phone getting the salient details. There are numerous digressions covering obits like those of David Foster Wallace who committed suicide at 46, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, someone named Jack Kinzler who saved the Spacelab and Eleanor Smith, an early female pilot whose advance obit was written in l931 (because it was thought she would die young) and hung around the morgue for decades until she died at the age of 98. But the William P. Wilson obit, together with a mistake that it contained in identifying his father’s father as a Democratic congressman from Illinois (in fact, he was a Republican) is the leitmotif running throughout the movie. We actually hear Weber as he mistakes the information while conducting his initial interview with Melody Miller, who was Wilson’s wife. Sherwin Nuland wrote a book called How We Die. Obit. deals with the ins and out of how death is written about in our paper of record with a particular emphasis on the touchy and even weighty subject of whose death will be remembered journalistically and in how many words.

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