'Obit' Documentary Follows Journalists Who Tell Lively Stories Of Death

Apr 28, 2017
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The joke used to be that the obits desk at a newspaper was where old journalists went to die. Writing obituaries was seen in the news business as a punishment, not something people wanted to do. But critic Bob Mondello says a movie called "Obit" about The New York Times' obituaries department is downright lively.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The letters come up on screen as they're being typed - the opening of a Times obituary that ran in 2013. For eight decades, Manson Whitlock kept the 20th century's ambient music going - reads the first line.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

MARGALIT FOX: The music is so wonderful.

MONDELLO: The fft (ph) of the roller, the decisive zhoop-bang (ph) of the carriage return - this, it turns out, is from the obit for a man who repaired typewriters. Margalit Fox, who composed those lines about him on a computer keyboard, reconstructs her thought process.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

FOX: I started to think, what sounds do a typewriter make because it's this music that this man was helping to keep alive. Now that he's gone, what's going happen to that music?

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER DING)

FOX: The finality of that...

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CARRIAGE RETURN)

FOX: ...Or this.

MONDELLO: That's how you write an obit - now a lesson in constructing documentaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Just a minute, George (ph).

MONDELLO: In front of a full orchestra, Liberace sits down not at a piano but at a typewriter. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould is having fun with archival film - not ghoulish fun. We are talking deaths here. But as the Times staffers point out, only one brief paragraph of an obit is usually about death. The rest is about the arc of a life lived, something that can be made colorful and lively, illustrated with details researched in what a newspaper calls the morgue.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

JEFF ROTH: We got geographical clippings. This is the card catalogue.

MONDELLO: Jeff Roth is the thoroughly engaging overseer of a forest of file cabinets crammed with articles and photos from past issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

ROTH: God, I can't believe these are our clips here now. Man, what a drag. These are all the clips on - man. (Unintelligible). Someone was asking for this recently. What happens is that...

MONDELLO: He looks around at thousands of file drawers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "OBIT")

ROTH: As the years and generations of people working in this facility go on, the person who knew the reason for that is gone. See; it's out of order.

MONDELLO: Roth is this film's secret weapon. As engaging and thoughtful as the obit writers are, their machinations are about what you'd expect them to be. But Roth is quirky, a real character. And those files - like something out of "Indiana Jones." He later goes to a cabinet filled with not-yet-published but pre-written obits. One, he marvels, was typed up in 1931 at the dawn of commercial aviation. It's about a teenager, a woman pilot for whom the editors just assumed they'd soon need a death notice. They socked away some great photos. And when she died a few years ago in her 90s, the Times was ready. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.