This movie still from Vanessa Gould’s masterful documentary “Obit.” is a snapshot of one of the most exquisitely crafted talking-head film compositions I can remember seeing. First, it gives full, unfussy attention to New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox, allowing the full range of her mesmerizing articulation of the nuances of the obit trade to flourish on the screen. But she’s placed off-center in an extremely clever way; we get the context of the Times newsroom behind her, or at least a charming corner of it with shelves teeming with books and covered with sticky notes, and even a manual typewriter just behind her (not just anachronistic set dressing; the typewriter actually serves a narrative purpose elsewhere in the film). The space that the frame leaves to Fox’s right allows her arm and hand to gesture about balletically as she underscores her words. And, to her far right, the camera just manages to fit in her nameplate mounted on the edge of her cubicle (in the actual film you see the full nameplate, but in this capture I found online it’s cropped slightly for some reason). So much information and expressiveness conveyed in one deceptively simple shot.
There’s much more to like in “Obit.” too. The film is a wonderful examination of the counter-intuitively life-affirming profession of obituary writer. It follows the atypically large staff of these specialized journalists at The New York Times as they scramble to write respectfully cogent and compelling stories about the lives of people who have just passed away. Like its subject matter, director Vanessa Gould has produced a careful, thoughtful film full of unexpected joy. It also continues the surprisingly strong batting average of that cinematic sub-genre known as “the newspaper movie.” “Obit.” holds its own next to more dramatic or hallowed fare like “Spotlight,” “All the President’s Men” and “His Girl Friday” by diving deep into the process of reporting. The results are fascinating not just from the perspective of understanding the process of how obituaries are created, but also understanding how we think about and memorialize notable lives.
Also worth mentioning: “Obit.” sports a gloriously tasteful poster. This thing is gorgeous.
“Obit.” is available for streaming now. Learn more at obitdoc.com.